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Religious Freedom Day, 2006

This article is addressed to the parents and guardians of the students in the public schools of the United States. Many School Boards, school administrators and teachers do not understand the US Constitution or case law regarding the rights of students to gather in prayer, carry Bibles or religious literature through the school corridors, and choose religious topics for their research or writing assignments. Many American students were told their English class essays concerning their spiritual faith or their references to the scriptures of their religious traditions in classroom discussions were unacceptable. Unfortunately, teachers violated federal law and students and their parents too often submit to fallacy and constitutional distortion.

On January 16, the US President will reissue the following proclamation, as he did the previous years. (This is taken from the White House web site.) 

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Religious Freedom Day, 2005
A Proclamation by the President of the United States of America


George Washington wrote, "The liberty enjoyed by the people of these States, of worshipping Almighty God agreeably to their consciences, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights." On Religious Freedom Day, Americans commemorate the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, which helped set the course for freedom of religion to be included in the First Amendment to our Constitution.

Our Founding Fathers knew the importance of freedom of religion to a stable and lasting Union. Our Constitution protects individuals' rights to worship as they choose. Today, we continue to welcome the important contributions of people of faith in our society. We reject religious bigotry in every form, striving for a society that honors the life and faith of every person. As we maintain the vitality of a pluralistic society, we work to ensure equal treatment of faith-based organizations and people of faith.

As the United States advances the cause of liberty, we remember that freedom is not America's gift to the world, but God's gift to each man and woman in this world. This truth drives our efforts to help people everywhere achieve freedom of religion and establish a better, brighter, and more peaceful future for all.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 16, 2005, as Religious Freedom Day. I encourage all Americans to reflect on the great blessing of religious freedom, to endeavor to preserve this freedom for future generations, and to commemorate this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fourteenth day of January, in the year of our Lord two thousand five, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and twenty-ninth.

GEORGE W. BUSH

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The following paragraphs in bold type are taken from the US Department of Education's web site with my commentary in plain type.

Section 9524 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act ("ESEA") of 1965, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, requires the Secretary to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. In addition, Section 9524 requires that, as a condition of receiving ESEA funds, a local educational agency ("LEA") must certify in writing to its State educational agency ("SEA") that it has no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools as set forth in this guidance.

The purpose of this guidance is to provide SEAs, LEAs, and the public with information on the current state of the law concerning constitutionally protected prayer in the public schools, and thus to clarify the extent to which prayer in public schools is legally protected. This guidance also sets forth the responsibilities of SEAs and LEAs with respect to Section 9524 of the ESEA. As required by the Act, this guidance has been jointly approved by the Office of the General Counsel in the Department of Education and the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice as reflecting the current state of the law. It will be made available on the Internet through the Department of Education's web site (http://www.ed.gov/). The guidance will be updated on a biennial basis, beginning in September 2004, and provided to SEAs, LEAs, and the public.

The US government requires our public school officials certify (in writing) to the State Board of Education overseeing them that their schools are in compliance with federal law in that it espouses "no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools." Perhaps concerned parents should request a copy of this certification from their local school boards.

The First Amendment has been twisted and misconstrued into some box titled "separation of church and state." I applaud the First Amendment, as I join its writers in not desiring any government to determine what the "State Religion" would be. The US government's position is clear and welcomed:  

The relationship between religion and government in the United States is governed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which both prevents the government from establishing religion and protects privately initiated religious expression and activities from government interference and discrimination...

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer....

The Supreme Court's decisions over the past forty years set forth principles that distinguish impermissible governmental religious speech from the constitutionally protected private religious speech of students....

As employees of the state and municipal governments, school officials rightfully cannot dictate religious beliefs to students nor can they deny students their rights to freedom of expression, which includes their religious faiths. It is against the law for school officials to prohibit students from gathering in prayer or study groups before or after school on school property, or during lunch and recess times:

Although the Constitution forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer, students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," and the Supreme Court has made clear that "private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression." Moreover, not all religious speech that takes place in the public schools or at school-sponsored events is governmental speech. For example, "nothing in the Constitution ... prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day," and students may pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other conversation or speech...

Parents need not fear sending their children off to school with religious literature in their back packs. Parents can joyfully let their children know if they want to keep a Bible on their desks as a ever present reminder of their source of life, strength and faith, or place scripture quotes on their book covers, that is their constitutional right. And, if challenged, parents armed with knowledge of the law, will back the children:

Students may pray when not engaged in school activities or instruction, subject to the same rules designed to prevent material disruption of the educational program that are applied to other privately initiated expressive activities. Among other things, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities. While school authorities may impose rules of order and pedagogical restrictions on student activities, they may not discriminate against student prayer or religious speech in applying such rules and restrictions.

Any privileges and rights of assembly and public or private expression of religious faith is as strongly protected as sectarian ones:

Students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs, and "see you at the pole" gatherings before school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular student activities groups. Such groups must be given the same access to school facilities for assembling as is given to other non-curricular groups, without discrimination because of the religious content of their expression....

Even teachers have rights to freedom of expression as long as they are not speaking as government employees. Teachers don't even need to leave the school grounds to publicly pray or study with their colleagues:

Teachers may, however, take part in religious activities where the overall context makes clear that they are not participating in their official capacities. Before school or during lunch, for example, teachers may meet with other teachers for prayer or Bible study to the same extent that they may engage in other conversation or nonreligious activities....

A student's assignment in writing, art, or even science projects may certainly be centered on the student's faith without fear of repercussions or sanction:

Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school. Thus, if a teacher's assignment involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer (for example, a psalm) should be judged on the basis of academic standards (such as literary quality) and neither penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious content....

For various occasions, especially graduation exercises, students are asked to deliver speeches. Such students best ask about the parameters and be clear on what is expected. Upon my high school graduation ceremony, I was asked to address the audience of about 2000 on one general topic, with no restrictions. Legally, I could have preached a sermon with no repercussions. Any school that feels cautious about what student speakers will say (and some will ask the student for a copy of his or her speech for review and approval) can place a disclaimer in its handouts or invitations as suggested by our government:

Where student speakers are selected on the basis of genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria and retain primary control over the content of their expression, that expression is not attributable to the school and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content. By contrast, where school officials determine or substantially control the content of what is expressed, such speech is attributable to the school and may not include prayer or other specifically religious (or anti-religious) content. To avoid any mistaken perception that a school endorses student speech that is not in fact attributable to the school, school officials may make appropriate, neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech (whether religious or nonreligious) is the speaker's and not the school's...

Unlike the last two years, this year the President's Religious Freedom Day Proclamation will fall on next Monday, a school and work day. In keeping with previous proclamations, this year's will be written and published a few days prior to Monday. School Boards, state and municipal officials, teacher-parent organizations, student organizations, and individuals are encouraged to download the proclamation and encourage its dissemination to every administrator, teacher and student. Many "proclamations" are nods of the head in the direction of political correctness. Let us grasp this opportunity to transcend "being nice and considerate" to making it grounded in the daily experience of all people. Did you know about this proclamation last year? Or the year before? Print out this article and pass it onto others. Forward this article through email. Email me for more citations of law and arm yourselves with them.

Let our students seize the opportunity to make a wondrously powerful statement throughout our nation: On Monday morning, January 16, let every teacher in every school walk into his or her classroom and observe the holy books of each student's choice sitting on his or her desk. On Monday noon, let every teacher in every school observe students getting together during non-instructional time, praying or discussing their spiritual faiths. On Monday afternoon, let every teacher in every school see their students congregate in the school and on school property to continue what they started at noon. On Monday, let every teacher in every school decide his or her response in accordance with the US Constitution. And let every teacher know they can join their students in the expression and study of religious faith as private citizens outside their role as employees of the state.

Let us have Tuesday morning be a repeat of Monday. Let such religious freedom, proclaimed by our President, infuse every school day. And let every one be knowledgeable and ready to respond to the challenges of misguided people who are not familiar with (or who would rather distort) the well written and designed Constitution of the United States.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
~ Education, Research and Advocacy
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Spiritual Resource Services  © January 12, 2006
 

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