America’s Public Schools Are Not God-Free Zones

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God and prayer were never taken out of America’s public schools.   Students are protected by the Constitution, court decisions, and the federal government’s Department of Education when they choose to live their faith in many ways throughout their school day. To deny students those rights would be in violation of their First Amendment right to freely exercise their faith.

The current U. S. Department of Education’s Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools had its beginnings in a document issued at President Clinton’s direction in 1995 to clarify the rights of students to religious freedom in public schools.  The updated guidelines apply to every public school in America and explain, as excerpted here,  that public school students may:

  • Pray and read religious materials, say grace at mealtime, engage in worship or study religious materials with other students during non-instructional time. These activities must be student led and non-disruptive and must be treated by the schools in the same manner as other  non-curricular activities.
  • Organize prayer groups or religious study groups the same as any other non-curricular clubs are allowed at the school and will have access to resources in the school as do the non-religious clubs.
  • Choose to pray or not if the school has a “ moment of silence.”
  • Express their religious beliefs in school discussions and assignments when it is appropriate to the topic.
  • Display religious items or text on clothing to the same extent that non-religious messages are allowed.

Americans have been assailed and misled too often by those who misunderstand certain  Supreme Court opinions as absolute prohibitions of any religious expression in public schools.

Three Supreme Court decisions were aimed at preventing the government (public schools) from mandating prayers and practices for their students.   The 1962 Supreme Court decision in Engel v. Vitale stated that a government-written prayer, which most students joined daily, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  In 1963, the case of Abington School v. Schempp resulted in a Supreme Court opinion that a mandated reading of the Bible and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer should be taken out of schools’ directed practices.  In 1992, in Lee v. Weis, the Supreme Court ruled that schools could not invite clergy to speak at graduation ceremonies.

It is no surprise to those who study and defend religious freedom that the June 19, 2024, signing of a law by Gov. Jeff Landry of Louisiana that directed the posting of the Ten Commandments in every state-supported classroom from Kindergarten through college would result in reflexive indignation and outrage by the media, secular organizations, and individuals.

This law, the first of its kind in the United States, came as a greater shock than it would have if Americans had understood that America’s public schools are not God-free zones.  The First Amendment bans the government from imposing a particular sect or religious practices on Americans but also prevents the government from constraining the religious practices of public school students.

The people of Louisiana, through their legislators, have chosen to display the 10 Commandments to expose their children to what they believe is the historical, cultural, and traditional basis for their laws and liberties.  They understand that court challenges lie ahead but have chosen a course reflective of the sentiments of Founding Father and President John Adams, who said, “ Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

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Barbara Samuells is the President and Co-Founder of Catholics for Freedom of Religion.

 

 


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