Reading, Writing And Respect: School Officials Should Resolve To Protect Students' Religious Freedom

Happy New Year! After a break for the holidays, I'm back at work here at Americans United. And, as far as I know, it's back to school for kids across the country today, too.

In an effort to make everyone's lives easier in 2010 – including students, parents, teachers and school officials – we'd like to start things off by asking all public school staff to make this a constitutionally sound new year and resolve to uphold the wall of separation between church and state.

It shouldn't be too difficult to keep that resolution considering it's mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Parents have the right to teach their children about religion at home, and that means schools must remain neutral on religion.

It seems simple, but every year, a scattering of public schools across the country violate student rights by pushing religion. We'd like to curb the number of complaints we receive from parents and students this year. We'd also appreciate reading fewer stories about church-state abuses like the one in the Columbus Dispatch last week.

The paper has been covering a situation at a Mt. Vernon, Ohio, public school where an eighth-grade science teacher allegedly used his personal Bible in the classroom and burned a cross onto a student's arm. He was also accused in early 2008 of teaching creationism.

Teacher John Freshwater denied these allegations, but last week, he was caught in his own lie. Freshwater was asked whether he surveyed his incoming students about their religious beliefs. He said no, but later school officials revealed that they found questionnaires in his classroom.

According to the Dispatch's report, after being shown these questionnaires, Freshwater replied -- following a long pause -- "It appears like you have gone through my room and taken some stuff out."

The school board already voted in 2008 to fire Freshwater for promoting religion in the classroom, but he is entitled to an independent hearing from which a recommendation will be made to the board.

We're pretty hopeful that, considering all the evidence, the school district will do the right thing. And, for the most part, we know the majority of public schools actually do a good job of respecting students' constitutional rights. But we'd like to see the few bad apples finally get their act together this year.

A few schools in Connecticut could get that ball rolling. Right before the holidays, Americans United, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, asked five public schools there to move their graduation ceremonies from an evangelical Christian church to a secular venue.

One school district, South Windsor, has already agreed to transfer its commencement to the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. If the other schools follow suit, it'll be a welcome start to a new year.

P.S. To make it easier to stick to this resolution, school districts across the country can purchase AU's latest book, Religion in the Public Schools: A Roadmap for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents' Legal Rights, or download it for free here.