September 2021 Church & State Magazine | Cover Story

Students, parents and educators have plenty of back-to-school worries this fall as they navigate changing safety measures amidst the persistent COVID-19 pandemic.

Protecting children from religious coercion in their own public schools shouldn’t be among those worries. But religious extremists and their allies in state legislatures and public school boards show no sign of backing off their decades-long push to force Christian nationalism into our public schools.

That’s why, just in time for the new school year, Americans United created “Know Your Rights” guides to help students, parents and teachers understand their religious freedom rights and responsibilities in public schools.

The guides, which are available at www.au.org/knowyourrights, touch on a variety of areas in which AU often sees students’ rights violated in public schools, including:

Prayer: Sometimes it’s appropriate (such as when it’s voluntary and student-led during noninstructional times) and sometimes it’s not (if it’s sponsored by a school or school officials, including at school-sponsored events or over the morning announcements).

Teaching religion: Teachers can introduce lessons on how religion relates to particular subjects (such as how religion has influenced history or culture), but teachers cannot preach a religion, teach that one faith is better than others or instruct that religious tenets should be treated as objective facts.

Religious materials: Public schools cannot distribute, or allow outside groups to hand out, religious materials to students except in very limited circumstances. In some cases, students may be able to distribute such materials outside of class, as long as they don’t disrupt class or harass their classmates.

Religious accommodations: If public schools  accommodate students’ religious holidays, garb and other religious practices, they must treat all students equally.

Ian Smith, a staff attorney at Am­ericans United who spearheaded the creation of the “Know Your Rights” guides, said they’re meant to serve as a resource to students, their families and educators.

“In addition to enforcement of the separation of religion and government, Americans United was founded to provide education about these principles to the public,” said Smith. “It is our hope that these pamphlets will serve both purposes by educating students, teachers, and parents about the law and, through that education, help them to avoid engaging in violations or to recognize when a violation has occurred so that they can advocate for their own rights or get help from an organization like Americans United.”

Smith serves as point person in receiving and reviewing all potential religious freedom violations that are reported to AU. That makes him the first line of defense for people who need help defending their right to believe, or not, as they choose, free from discrimination or government interference.

Smith oversees AU’s nonlitigation program, which “is designed to help educate people about the separation of church and state and to try and end constitutional violations without the need for litigation,” he explained. “Through nonlitigation advocacy we can sometimes fix violations in days or weeks that would take months or years to solve through litigation. We can also use nonlitigation advocacy to effect change in situations where a lawsuit is inadvisable or impossible.”

Much of AU’s nonlitigation work occurs behind the scenes; not only can lack of publicity speed the resolution process, but many people – especially vulnerable schoolchildren – who report violations fear retaliation from local officials or community members, who often see attempts to enforce the constitutional promise of church-state separation as an affront to their personal beliefs and traditions.

That’s why AU’s nonlitigation victories are not well known unless members of the community – often those who don’t want a problem fixed – contact the media.

An extreme example of that occurred in late 2019, leading former President Donald Trump to inadvertently highlight Americans United’s work during an Oval Office press conference ostensibly on religious freedom in public schools.

The situation involved a Kentucky public high school that allowed an empty locker to be turned into a “prayer locker” with a sign encouraging students to submit prayer requests. If this had truly been a student-led initiative, it may have passed constitutional muster. But it was clear from Pike County Schools District communications that the prayer locker was initiated by one or more teachers at the school.

A community member asked Am­er­i­cans United for help, and after AU alerted the school district that a school-sponsored religious display like the prayer locker was unconstitutional, the district removed prayer locker displays at several district schools.

“It is pretty straightforward that public schools cannot display religious messages, and they can’t encourage their students to pray or engage in religious activity,” Smith said in an Oct. 2019 interview with the Louisville public radio station WFPL.

It was one of several interviews Smith gave after the incident got media attention, especially after a local Baptist pastor launched a “Pray Anyway” campaign, urging students to convert their own lockers in prayer lockers. Once again, adults were coercing schoolchildren to participate in religious practices in their public schools.

A few months later, the Trump administration announced new school prayer “guidance” that ostensibly was supposed to clarify public school students’ religious freedom rights but actually promoted prayer and proselytization in public schools. It was an opportunity for Trump to pander to his white Christian nationalist base as election season was heating up, and he touted the guidance during a White House press conference. Among the speakers was a Pike County student who supported the prayer lockers.

Trump may be out of office, but that’s not stopping the Christian nationalist assault on public schools. Recent news reports have noted that the Project Blitz initiative is still working behind the scenes to lobby state legislators to pass bills that insert Christian nationalism into our public schools and allow religious freedom to be misused to justify discrimination. Although the movement’s success has been diminished in the last 18 months, thanks in large part to AU and allies raising awareness of its harmful agenda, state legislatures still are proposing, considering and, in a few cases, passing Project Blitz bills. This year, North Dakota passed a law allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public schools, and Texas passed a law requiring “In God We Trust” to be displayed in public schools.

Although AU fields and works to resolve religious freedom complaints involving all levels of government, a large portion of the violations reported to AU occur in public schools.

“It is safe to say that the vast majority – maybe even as much as two-thirds – of the work that we do in our nonlitigation program is related to violations in the public schools,” said Smith. “Violations of the religious freedom of impressionable children are especially egregious and Americans United is committed to vigorously opposing unconstitutional endorsement of religion in the public schools.”

As effective as it is, AU’s nonlitigation program can’t always resolve every problem. Sometimes, the violations end up in court, as was the case in 2018 when AU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of several Bossier Parish, La., families whose children experienced pervasive religious coercion from public school administrators, teachers and coaches.

Multiple religious freedom violations had occurred, including school events being held at churches or involving prayers as part of the official program; extensive promotion of religion within school athletic programs; teachers proselytizing in classrooms; and religious displays in classrooms and offices.

In Jan. 2019, AU announced victory in the case, having reached a settlement agreement with the district that included the novel creation of a monitoring committee to review and resolve potential violations or disputes involving religious freedom.

“This historic settlement is a victory for all Bossier families and will ensure that children feel welcome and included in their own schools, regardless of what religion they do or don’t practice at home,” Rachel Laser, AU president and CEO, said at the time.

While protecting the religious freedom of public schoolchildren has been a core part of Americans United’s mission since its founding nearly 75 years ago, students aren’t the only ones who have religious freedom rights in schools. As the “Know Your Rights” guides make clear, teachers and other school staff, as government employees, also have rights that include being free from religious coercion at work.

AU helped resolve a related violation for the faculty and staff at Winslow Unified School District #1 in Arizona the summer of 2020. Teachers contacted AU after the district had hosted a “Back to School Kick Off” for staff that featured at least eight Christian pastors who recited Bible quotes, led Christian prayers, requested that participants raise their hands to show their belief in God and pronounced that God would protect them from COVID-19.

Within days of AU notifying the district that the event was unconstitutional, the district issued a public apology and promise not to let it happen again.

“Public schools must be inclusive spaces that welcome and respect the diverse religious beliefs of all students and staff,” said AU Litigation Counsel Ken Upton in response to the incident. “The law is clear that school districts cannot sponsor or endorse any religious activities.”

Americans United hopes the new “Know Your Rights” guides will help foster religious freedom in public schools for all students and educators. But if violations do occur, Smith and AU are ready to address them. Please report any potential church-state separation violations at www. ­au.­org/­get-involved/report-a-vio­lation.