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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.


 
 
 


Church and State Separation in Public Schools: An Agreement of Compliance

A PAD Briefing Paper, June 8, 2001 -- Managing a school district is a large responsibility requiring solid, professional experience and a great deal of expertise. However, it is impossible for superintendents to be expert in every aspect of life that impacts a public school. In order to assist superintendents to avoid the unnecessary and almost always heated and very public controversies that erupt about religion in public schools, the Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has developed a standard agreement, "An Agreement of Compliance with the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States in our Public School." This is a tool to help school administrators remain in compliance with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. A copy of this agreement and its background explanation is attached.
    Over the last several years there have been numerous incidents in Pennsylvania when the civil rights of parents and their children have been violated during public school sponsored programs such as school assemblies, graduations ceremonies, or similar events. This can occur when an outside guest speaker at a graduation ceremony or school assembly program expresses his or her religious faith in such a manner that it violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, also known as church and state separation.
    For example, Athletes In Action (AIA), a program of Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), which has a staff of 110,000, were given permission in 1997 by the administrators of Athens and Northeastern School Districts, Pennsylvania, to conduct in-school assemblies aimed at discouraging students from using drugs. The mission of the CCC states in part, "Campus Crusade for Christ is an interdenominational ministry committed to helping take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations."
    The AIA representatives assured school authorities that AIA would not use this opportunity to engage in evangelical proselytizing. Nevertheless, the AIA presenters did make their personal witnesses to Christ and distributed their religious literature to students during the assemblies. This was a typical bait and switch tactic; promise one thing, do another. Many parents were offended by AIA's tactics and complained to the administrators and to the school directors that AIA had violated their First Amendment rights.
    During 2001, ten public school districts in northeastern Pennsylvania, including Athens School District, were asked to let the John Jacob's Power Team, another religious organization, present what was billed as an anti-drug, anti-pregnancy, and anti-suicide program during public school assemblies. The mission of the Power Team is, "To be a ministry of excellence and integrity with our heartbeat and focus on winning the lost, building the local church, and encouraging the pastor." When the Power Team's proposed, in-school program was reported in the newspapers, there were vociferous objections from many people. Their concerns were communicated to all superintendents in writing, in letters-to-the-editor, and the ACLU of PA wrote a letter to the ten superintendents on this issue counseling them on the risks of First Amendment violations. Collectively, these objections to the proposed Power Team program sparked a heated backlash in the papers and at school board meetings by those who felt prayer in public school was the needed antidote many issues they feel ail schools.
    The vocal and very public pressure on school superintendents and school directors from both sides continued for over a month. The amount of time and energy spent by school administrators in ten school districts dealing with this controversy was time most superintendents would much rather have spent focused on their students.
    In the future, if a superintendent requires the "Agreement of Compliance" be signed by all outside paid or volunteer speakers who are to be involved in school-sponsored programs, the superintendent will prevent most First Amendment violations from occurring. Furthermore, having speakers and other participants sign the Agreement of Compliance as a standard operating procedure will go a long way toward defusing the concerns of those who are strong supporters of religious liberty as guaranteed in the First Amendment.
    Organizations which have endorsed this "Agreement of Compliance" include the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU of PA), Pennsylvania NOW (National Organization for Women), Inc., Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy (PAD),and Bradford County Alliance for Democracy.

    Pennsylvania Alliance for Democracy has devised a simple form which school officials can use to assure themselves that presenters are informed of the need to respect the religious freedom of students. The form is being mailed to superintendents around the state, and is also available below*, or may be obtained in print by contacting PAD at 300 North Second Street, Suite 906, Harrisburg, PA 17101

*Agreement of Compliance: Respecting the First Amendment Rights of Public School Students. (This is a 2 page PDF file, which opens in separate window and loads slowly, please be patient. Adobe Acrobat Reader necessary, free download available)

OR, for those without pdf file capability, these two pages can also be printed from a separate browser popup window: *Agreement of Compliance and explanation to accompany Agreement



 

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