Education Department's Religion Rules Push Schools To Allow Prayer, Charges Americans United

Watchdog Group Offers Legal Assistance To Schools Unfairly Threatened With Funding Cut-Off

New federal guidelines "push the envelope" on religion in public schools beyond what the courts have allowed, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
On Feb. 7, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidelines governing religious activities in public schools. School officials who fail to comply with the government edict face the possible loss of federal education funds.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said some of the new rules are based on a biased reading of the law intended to advance inappropriate religious activities in public schools.

"The Bush administration is clearly trying to push the envelope on behalf of prayer in public schools," said AU's Lynn. "Administration lawyers have selectively read case law to come to the conclusions they wanted.

"These guidelines assert that students can lead prayers or give sermons at some school functions," Lynn continued. "The Supreme Court has never allowed that. If the administration tries to cut off federal funding to any school on the basis of these guidelines, that action will surely be challenged in court."

Lynn said Americans United will assist any public school that is unjustly denied federal funding for failing to abide by the guidelines.

Americans United legal experts charge that sections of the guidelines are deliberately vague or have been skewed to imply that certain types of religious activities in public schools must be permitted when in fact courts have not been clear on some practices.

"Federal courts have split over the legality of some religious activities in public schools, such as so-called 'student-initiated prayer,' at public school events," said Lynn. "Yet these guidelines flatly state that such activities are legal."

AU cited two problematic examples from the guidelines:

Implying that gray areas of the law have been settled: Federal courts have split over the question of 'student-initiated' prayer at school events such as graduation, assemblies and sporting matches. The Supreme Court has struck down school-sanctioned prayer before graduation and athletic events, but the guidelines imply that 'student-initiated' prayer is still permissible at these events. This interpretation is apparently based on one federal appeals court ruling; it is not applicable to the entire nation.

Using inappropriate case law to bolster dubious conclusions: The guidelines cite cases from the college level and cases dealing with government funding of religion to assert that some types of religious activity are legal in public schools. These cases are not relevant. Courts have allowed more religious activity in colleges and upheld certain types of government funding for religion while still striking down coercive religious activity in elementary and secondary schools.

The "No Child Left Behind" education law passed last year mandates that public schools certify that they are in compliance with these guidelines. Any school that is found guilty of violating them can lose federal funding.

"The threat of loss of funding is a harassment tool designed to force public schools into following these flawed guidelines," AU's Lynn said. "We don't intend to stand for that. Any public school that is unjustly threatened with loss of public funds can count on AU's legal team for help."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.