Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Free Exercise of Religion

Free Exercise of Religion

I recently received a brochure from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee entitled Know Your Rights: Religion in Public Schools (A Guide for Administrators and Teachers). I will provide the following quotes without comment.

Prayer in Classroom and at Assemblies
The United States Supreme Court has long held that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits school-sponsored prayer or religious indoctrination. Forty years ago, the Court struck down classroom prayers and scripture readings, even if they were voluntary and even if students had the option of being excused.

Equal Access Act
Religious clubs may hold meetings on public high school grounds in accordance with the Federal Equal Access Act as long as other similar non-curriculum related student groups are allowed to meet during non-instructional time; the club does not interfere with regular educational activities; and the school does not initiate, direct, sponsor, participate in, or promote during instructional time the religious activities of student clubs. Additionally, while faculty are commonly required to be present during student meetings for insurance purposes, their role should be restricted to a custodial, non-participatory role.

Prayer at School Board Meetings
(Regarding prayer at School Board meetings) the court observed that “[t]he very fact that school board meetings focus solely on school-related matters provides students with an incentive to attend the meetings that is lacking in other settings. The board makes policy on a wide range of issues directly affecting a student’s life in school. Be it dress codes, locker searches, changes in the curriculum, or funding for extracurricular activities, school board meetings are the arena in which all issues directly relevant to students are discussed and decided. The fact that the board regularly presents honors and awards to students at its meetings only provides added enticements for students to attend school board meetings. Furthermore, students who wish to challenge their suspension or expulsion from school are required by statute to air their grievances at a school board meeting. For such students, attendance at a board meeting is not a matter of choice…
Under this analysis the court found that the practice of beginning school board meetings with a prayer was unconstitutional.

Prayer at Graduation
Because attendance at high school graduation ceremonies is in effect obligatory – and because the ceremonies themselves are an adjunct to, and, in a real sense, the culmination of the public school curriculum – the inclusion of a religious program in graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause.

Baccalaureate Services
The absence of prayer from a public school’s official graduation ceremony does not prohibit students from affirming their religious beliefs before or after the ceremony. Nothing in Lee or Santa Fe, for example, would prevent or prohibit like-minded students from organizing a privately-sponsored baccalaureate service – provided that it was held separately from the school’s graduation program, was entirely voluntary, and was neither sponsored nor supervised by school officials.

“See You at the Pole”
Organized events such as “See You at the Pole” are permissible under certain conditions. “See You at the Pole” involves prayer meetings held before the start of the school day at a pre-arranged site on school grounds. Similar to guidelines outlined in the Equal Access Act, outside persons may not direct, conduct, control or regularly attend the activities of such student groups. Additionally, schools may not circumvent the ban against school-sponsored prayer by initiating such events and delegating the responsibilities to students, or by obtaining “permission” from parents. Furthermore, schools may not advertise or promote such events within the school either verbally or in writing.

In conclusion, the state may neither prefer nor prohibit religious exercise but rather must remain neutral. “School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are non-adherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’

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