January 16th is "Religious Freedom Day," an annual event that commemorates one of the greatest documents promoting religious liberty ever written – Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
Many scholars believe the Virginia Statute was an inspiration for the First Amendment. In eloquent language, the measure ended Virginia's state church and guaranteed religious liberty for all. If you haven't read it, you should.
Ironically, Religious Right groups are trying to use Religious Freedom Day to promote their narrow agenda. The Alliance Defense Fund and Gateways to Better Education have just teamed up to release a new pamphlet titled "Free to Speak." The publication purports to advise public school students and teachers of their religious rights in the schools.
Interestingly, the ADF and Gateways are claiming their advice comes straight from the U.S. Department of Education, so it must be all right, correct?
Not quite. A little background is helpful: During the Clinton administration, the Education Department issued some guidelines dealing with religion in public education. In the main they were OK, but in some areas the guidelines interpreted the law in ways that are not quite accurate or that have since been clarified by more recent court rulings.
For example, "Free to Speak" asserts that students have an unqualified right to include religious material in their class work and homework. The reality is different.
Religious Right groups brought legal cases on behalf of students who put religious content into their work and either received a poor grade or were told to knock it off. These were not successful in court, and a consensus has emerged: Teachers and school officials have the right to curb students who wish to use classroom assignments for proselytism. The federal courts tend to defer to teachers in this area; judges really don't want to grade little Johnny's homework.
"Free to Speak" also asserts that students have a right to preach to others during graduation ceremonies and other school events. Again, this is overbroad. Several courts have ruled that school officials have the right to tell students they may not use a school-supplied forum to proselytize others during public events. Indeed, this was the crux of a 2000 case at the Supreme Court dealing with ostensibly "student-led" prayers during high school football games. (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe)
The Education Department guidelines "Free to Speak" cites are more nearly 14 years old and in some cases fail to take into account relevant court rulings. Public school students and teachers who want to know that status of the law would do better to consult a more neutral source – not two Religious Right organizations bent on making America a fundamentalist Christian nation.
A note to the ADF and Gateways: Urging children to use the public school system to impose their faith on others is an odd way to celebrate Religious Freedom Day.