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.

"You risk a good deal of social ostracism in certain instances," Hudson said. "One thing, and not just with religious speech, but history if full of examples that the price of free speech and standing up for 1st amendment principles is often quite high."

So what should a parent do if they learn that their child's public school is promoting or endorsing religious activity? Mach and Hudson offered several suggestions.

  • Talk to your child. If mixing school and religion is something you feel strongly about, make sure you explain the issue. It's not just religions or practices that differ with your own, but the thought that some kids may feel like outsiders simply because they don't practice what appears to be the "accepted" religion at school. Tell your child to let you know if school officials seem to be promoting religion at public school.
  • Have a family discussion. After you get a report of an incident at school, be sure to include the entire family. "If the family decides this is just not right, hopefully they have someone within the school system whom they trust."
  • Talk to a trusted school official. That may be the principal or a teacher or perhaps a counselor at your child's school. Or, perhaps there's someone you know in the school district office.
  • If necessary, seek an outside agency. "The fear of intimidation keeps many families silent even in the face of egregious constitutional violations," Mach said." If a family has no place to turn within the school, they can contact public interest organizations, like the ACLU."

Hudson and Mach said they both hope high-profile cases like the one at Pace High School cause families around the country to think more about the issue.

"Hopefully, as these issues come to light, students, parents, and school officials will recognize that religious freedom thrives best when government stays out of it."