Public Schools and Religion: What Parents Need to Know

Public Schools and Religion: What Parents Need to Know

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Updated on Sep 24, 2009

In Florida earlier this month, the principal and athletic director of Pace High School faced potential jail time after violating a consent decree that had been triggered the previous school year.

The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a lawsuit against the school, located in Santa Rosa County in northwest Florida, after verifying complaints that school officials promoted religion and included prayers at many school events. School officials admitted to the conduct, and the ACLU pointed to a section in the school handbook that encourages teachers to "embrace every opportunity to inculcate, by precept and example, the practice of every Christian virtue."

The consent decree was signed in early January and later that month the court found that Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman violated the decree by including a prayer at a school luncheon. The federal district court judge decided, however, that the two school officials shouldn't receive jail time.

Much of the Pace community seemed to rally around the school and the two officials, raising nearly $70,000 in donations to help pay for legal bills and generally supporting their actions. While the issue in Florida is now resolved, the controversy presents an important lesson for parents in public schools around the country.

What's So Bad About Prayer and Religion?

That's the question many Pace High School supporters have asked. The answer is simple, says Daniel Mach, director of litigation at the ACLU program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and an expert in 1st Amendment law: nothing. But the issue is much larger than that one question.

"It's important to note that students have a right, both in school and out of school, to speak about their faith and to gather with like-minded individuals to practice their religion," said Mach. "But constitutional problems arise when public school officials get involved and place their stamp of approval on particular religious belief and practices."

Remember, Mach points out, the teachers and principals at schools around the country are people kids look up to and respect and want to please. That makes the issue of religion in schools even more complicated.

The U.S. Supreme Court has dealt with cases on this issue since the Warren Court in the 1960s, said David L. Hudson, Jr., a 1st Amendment scholar at the First Amendment Center who also teaches 1st Amendment law at Vanderbilt Law School.

"One of the factors that courts have looked at is the impressionability of young people and that's been a concern with respect to whether there's been endorsement of religion or some kind of coercion."

That's also why Mach believes the Pace case is symptomatic of a growing trend in the country.

"We get complaints all the time and it seems these are just the tip of the iceberg," Mach said. "We don't really quantify it, so it is hard to say. But there are few signs of this problem improving."

There's no doubt, Mach and Hudson agreed, that many instances of religion in public schools simply go unreported. "This happens more than we learn about largely because dissenters are often afraid to step forward," Mach said.

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