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Letters From AU’s Legal Department Solve Church-State Problems In Public Schools Without Going To Court

Public school teacher Laura Dietrich is excited about her involvement with Christian Educators Association International (CEAI).

“I just think the neatest part of Christian Educators is knowing that I’m part of a family of other teachers, thousands of us, and we’re all working in a public school and sharing our faith with our students,” gushes Dietrich on a promotional video on the group’s Web site.

On the same video, another public school teacher, Jen Holste, lauds CEAI’s Teachers of Vision magazine for helping “me live out my faith in the classroom.”

Neither Dietrich nor Holste explain exactly how they share their faith with students, and both seem oblivious to a huge potential problem: Their mindset is troubling to many parents who don’t want teachers to meddle in their children’s religious training.

Federal courts have ruled repeatedly that teachers have no right to engage in devotional activities with students. Nevertheless, Religious Right groups continue to look for ways to bring their religious fundamentalist Christian views into public schools. Religious Right powerhouses such as Focus on the Family, the Alliance Defense Fund and the American Center for Law and Justice play an important supporting role.

In landmark rulings issued in 1962 and ’63, the Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading. Subsequent rulings have curbed other types of coercive religious activity in public schools, while preserving the right of students to pray on a truly voluntary (and non-disruptive) basis. Schools are also free to offer academic study of religion where appropriate in the curriculum.

That’s not good enough for the Religious Right. Most of these groups have never made their peace with the high court’s rulings from the early ’60s. Religious Right publications and Web sites are replete with attacks on public schools as “godless” and amoral places where basically anything goes. They see an injection of religion – of their own fundamentalist Christian stripe, of course – as the corrective.

For many years, Religious Right organizations advocated nullifying the Supreme Court’s rulings through a constitutional amendment fostering official school prayer. When that failed, they began advocating the circumvention of those decisions, sneaking religion in through the schoolhouse’s back door.

All of this means that the team of lawyers at Americans United for Separation of Church and State remains busy. For decades, Americans United has worked to keep public schools free from religious coercion, an issue that remains prominent today. Ensuring that public schools are welcoming and open to students of all faiths (and none) is a pillar of AU’s work.

Americans United goes to court when necessary to defend this principle, but as much as possible, the organization works through other avenues. Often, when AU attorneys receive a report about inappropriate promotion of religion by public school officials, they respond with a letter outlining the law and explaining how the school has run afoul of it. Most of the time, school officials correct the problem.

Some recent examples include:

•South Carolina: AU lawyers warned public high school officials to stop permitting school-sanctioned prayer at mandatory assemblies and to cease promotion of an evangelical Christian rock concert.

•California: AU attorneys intervened when a district attorney developed a plan to have two public school districts invite local ministers onto campus to “counsel” and “mentor” students.

•Louisiana: School board members were advised that they may not send students on a field trip to an evangelistic event called “Just for Jesus.”

•Ohio: Attorneys with AU told public school officials to stop allowing a high school math teacher to use a Bible as a hall pass and to end his display of evangelical pamphlets in class.

•Montana: Public school officials went awry by allowing a local ministerial association to distribute Bibles to students during graduation, AU lawyers pointed out.

•North Carolina: AU’s legal team advised a middle school to stop permitting a teacher to use her Web site in class to promote creationism and to direct students to creationist Web sites.

•Arkansas: AU’s Legal Department told a high school that it must allow all student groups access to an annex built for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and that religious signs must be removed from the building.

•Wisconsin: AU warned a number of Milwaukee-area high schools to cease holding graduation ceremonies in an evangelical church decorated with a large cross.

AU’s Legal Department receives dozens of complaints of possible church-state violations every year. These are investigated, with letters going out when it’s deemed appropriate. Although AU covers the full range of church-state issues with these letters, questions over the proper role of religion in public schools are a regular feature.

Ian Smith, a staff attorney with Americans United, said it’s not uncommon for AU to receive 15 or more school-related complaints a month via e-mail, phone calls and letters. AU’s legal team examines each and follows up when necessary to get more information.

If the problem is deemed serious, the department prepares a letter to the school.           

Such conflicts are nothing new to Smith. As a high school student in east Tennessee, he was in the thick of a church-state ruckus when school officials and students began arguing over the propriety of having prayers during graduation.

In 2008, AU’s Legal Department intervened in numerous cases involving religion in public schools, and most were resolved to AU’s satisfaction. In a case from Pennsylvania, AU received a complaint about a high school football coach praying with players before and after practices.

After AU intervened, the prayers were replaced with a moment of silence.

In Tennessee, AU spoke up for a Wiccan student who was denied a day off for a religious observance, despite a school policy allowing students to miss days for religious holidays. The school relented the same afternoon the letter was sent and allowed the student an excused absence.

AU protested when a Texas middle school announced plans to host an assembly featuring a team of evangelical Christians called “Commandos! USA.” Two days after AU sent the letter, the assembly was cancelled.

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said it’s rare these days to see a public school flagrantly violating the law by sponsoring daily prayers over the public-address system, but battles over prayer at graduation and other school-sponsored events, the distribution of Bibles, the teaching of creationism and proselytizing by teachers remain common.

Why is this problem so prominent?

Some statistics tell the story: 90 percent of American children attend public schools. Evangelism-minded fundamentalist groups are aware that no other institution provides access to such a large body of youngsters. They persist in looking at public schools as a mission field.

Americans United is determined to preserve the religious neutrality of public education.

“Our work is designed to make certain that public schools remain focused on teaching, not preaching,” Khan said. “Schools can teach about religion in an objective sense, but they have no business meddling in devotional activities.”

AU’s job is made more difficult by a plethora of inaccurate and misleading information spread in the education community by the Religious Right. This material is designed to make teachers, parents or students believe they have certain “rights” to impose their religion on others – rights, in fact, that they do not have.

Several groups produce materials targeting public schools, but one of the biggest offenders is an outfit called Gateways to Better Education. Based in Lake Forest, Calif., Gateways produces a variety of publications that purport to advise teachers, parents and students on how to deal with religion in the classroom.

The Gateways document Expressing God’s Love at School encourages fundamentalists to “look at our schools as gardens to cultivate.” It adds, “This booklet gives you 52 ways to plant seeds of love and truth in the lives of those God has put within your sphere of influence.”

Gateways asserts it wants to promote religion in legal ways, such as discussing its role in history. But much of the advice the group offers is dubious at best. One pamphlet, for example, encourages teachers to use Thanksgiving to explain how the country thanks “God for His blessings.” Halloween, meanwhile, is best ignored or used as an opportunity to lecture students on “the problems of treating evil lightly.”

Gateways often works with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family to distribute its materials nationwide. In 2003, a Focus magazine printed an article by Gateways President Eric Buehrer blasting advocates of church-state separation.

“Over the years,” Buehrer wrote, “a vocal minority has intimidated many educators and school officials into thinking that there is little room for expression of, or teaching about, Christianity.”

Buehrer tells a story about a woman who a few weeks before Easter gave a teacher material on “how he could legally teach about Jesus’ death and resurrection.”

Writes Buehrer, “This prompted another conversation that ended with the mom giving the teacher a copy of a video on the life of Jesus. A few days later, the mom’s son reported that the teacher was spending the next four days showing and discussing the video in class.”

No specific information is given about the video, but AU’s Khan pointed out that if it was devotional in character, it would clearly be unconstitutional for use in a public school.

“Teachers can inform students that some Christians believe Jesus was resurrected, in the same way that teachers can let students know that Muslims believe that Mohammed was a prophet,” Khan said. “Teachers cannot, however, present the resurrection, or any other religious belief, as historically accurate or superior to any other religious beliefs.”

Groups like Gateways take a nugget of truth – it is legal to talk about religion as an academic subject in history, social studies, literature, art and other classes – and inflate that concept, implying that public schools may promote Christianity (or certain versions of Christianity) when legally they may not.

AU’s Khan said with so much bad information floating around, AU’s letters are more important than ever.

“Over the years, I’ve learned that many public school officials want to do the right thing,” Khan said, “but they are sometimes misled by Religious Right groups that put out inaccurate information about religion in public schools.”

Letters from AU’s Legal Department, Khan added, don’t just give the organization’s opinion; they also cite case law and explain the steps that should be taken to correct the situation.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn says that while litigation is important, AU can achieve much outside of court as well.

“These letters are a vital component of AU’s overall legal strategy,” Lynn said. “They don’t always capture the headlines, but they do a lot to advance the separation of church and state and protect public schools from Religious Right interference.”