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Religious Activity in Public Schools
Liz Hrenda, March 1, 2002 -- In the United States there are over 2,000 recognized faith groups. Remarkably, with this extensive religious diversity, we have had very little conflict among religious groups, compared to nations where adherents of one faith engage in campaigns of terror, harassment or even warfare against each other. One reason for this history of peace is that our nation's public school system has, by and large, protected the rights of students and teachers to freedom of religion. Instead of promoting the values of one faith, our schools teach our children to tolerate different points of view, seek to understand those who believe differently, and engender respect for others.
This is not to say that religion has been driven out of schools. The federal Department of Education has issued general rules which clarify the religious rights and protections relevant to public schooling. These guidelines state explicitly that students are allowed to pray, "so long as they are not disruptive." They also specify that school personnel "are prohibited from encouraging student religious or anti-religious activity." Indeed, given the many different ways that religious people choose to pray, and recognizing that many others choose not to pray at all, it is not surprising that government-sponsored prayer in schools is opposed by twenty-six national religious organizations. These include National Council of Churches; the Mennonite Central Committee, USA; American Jewish Congress; United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; American Baptist Churches, USA; The Episcopal Church; Friends Committee on National Legislation; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Church of Christ; Unitarian Universalist Association; Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; National Council of Jewish Women.
We urge you to respect the religious freedom of our nation, the language of our Constitution, and the rights of all of your constituents, and resist efforts to promote religious observance in public schools. Allow children to pray, or not, in the manner consistent with their faiths, and that of their families, and do not allow government intrusion into this very personal area of their lives. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of the principles on which our nation was founded. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a June 1992 opinion, "No holding of this Court suggests that a school can persuade or compel a student to participate in a religious exercise. . . The First Amendment's Religion Clauses mean the religious beliefs are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State."
The above is the text of a memo sent to all Pennsylvania County Commissioners in response to a campaign initiated by Washington County officials. Those officials sent letters to each county asking commissioners to back a proposed contsitutional amendenment that would allow government-sponsored religion in public schools.