For the most part, our public school teachers respect and appreciate the U.S. Constitution. They understand that parents should choose what to teach their children about religion, not school employees.
But every once in a while, a teacher comes along who insists he or she knows better. For example, Meadville, Miss., math instructor Alice Hawley believes she should lead her students in prayer during class.
Back in May, Franklin County School District Superintendent Dr. Grady Fleming issued Hawley a letter of non-renewal, stating she was being let go for “continued and regular leading of your students in prayer during class” and “insubordination by failure to stop having class prayer after being told to stop.”
But Hawley was reinstated the next morning because there was no evidence she had been previously asked to stop.
At that time, Americans United sent a letter to Fleming and the school’s principal, reminding them that the school district “has not only the right, but the duty, to prohibit Hawley from praying with her students during contract time.”
Hawley said she would rather quit than stop praying with her students and resigned in mid-August following the school district’s receipt of AU’s letter.
“I wasn’t going to quit praying as long as the students wanted it,” she told the Daily Leader. “Why get fired and then not be able to be hired because you were fired for insubordination? That would have went on my record.”
Hawley should realize that with or without student consent, it’s not constitutional – or appropriate -- for school officials to commandeer the religious lives of their students.
As AU pointed out in its letter, “Public school employees simply do not have the ‘right to make the promotion of religion a part of their job description.’ The courts have consistently upheld school districts’ authority both to prohibit school employees from injecting religion into the public school setting and to discipline employees who violate this edict.”
We’re glad to see this issue resolved. If Hawley insisted that she must pray with her students, it’s better that she not work in a public school system. The law has made it abundantly clear that public schools must remain neutral on the subject of religion.
Despite this being a very basic and simple concept, Americans United’s Legal Department spends a large chunk of time enforcing this constitutional mandate.
To save school districts the hassle of dealing with litigation, Americans United has published Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights. Written by Anne Marie Lofaso, associate professor of law at West Virginia University, the book provides answers on what the law requires with regard to religion in the public schools.
It’s definitely worth checking out.