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Back to School with the Religious Right
Religion and Public Schools
"For the past 30, 35 years, we as a nation have abandoned God. And in one case, the Supreme Court yesterday says you can't have a picture of Jesus, you can't have the Ten Commandments, you can't pray in schools, you can't read the Bible. And the Supreme Court continuously takes its fingers and sticks them in the eye of Almighty God."
-- Televangelist Pat Robertson, 700 Club, 5-3-95

The Religious Right axiom that "God has been kicked out of the public schools" is simply not true. Individual students are free to pray and share their faith with others in the same voluntary, non-disruptive manner that they may engage in other speech at school. The Supreme Court has consistently held that the government may not sponsor or endorse religious exercises or activities. Similarly, "captive audience" prayer by students or teachers is not permitted during classes or over school intercoms where students have no choice but to attend. But the courts have clearly protected the rights of students to engage in religious speech voluntarily, subject to the same sort of time, place and manner restrictions commonly applied to all other forms of student expression. Nevertheless, the Religious Right has been trying to return organized religious observances to schools since the Supreme Court banned organized, school-sponsored prayer almost 40 years ago.

With the legal and organizing assistance of prominent Religious Right legal groups, such as Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and the American Family Association (AFA), to name just two, schools must increasingly contend with lawsuits brought by those asserting that schools are infringing on their religious rights. In fact, more than 100 firms specializing in cases dealing with religion now exist nationwide.

Ever-prepared for opportunities to undermine the separation of church and state, Religious Right organizations and their political allies used the period of mourning and reflection that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks to promote their long-held agenda. Public schools across the country were bombarded with requests for school prayer, Bible curricula and the posting of the Ten Commandments or the national motto, "In God We Trust." Many say they saw an opportunity to push for their cause in the changed political climate. "Surely, Sept. 11 helps our case," said Rep. Randal Mangham, a George state legislator who suggested that the Georgia General Assembly revisit its law mandating a moment of silence in schools to explicitly include prayer. Mangham said he'd been considering his legislation for a while. Religious Right and political groups also sensed a change. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, applauded the changed mood. "There's more religious expression going on in our public schools than at any time in history. This is going to change the tone of public schools in America."
School Prayer
Texas was just one of the states where the Religious Right used the events of September 11 to promote its agenda of re-establishing organized, state-sponsored prayer in public schools. Texas Gov. Rick Perry endorsed organized school prayer saying that he saw no problem with ignoring the U.S. Supreme Court ban organized school prayer "at this very crisis moment in our history." Perry was defending school officials' decision to invite a Protestant minister to open a middle school assembly with a Christian prayer in October 2001. Perry also said he was planning on making school prayer a campaign issue in his next election. Jerry Falwell praised Perry in a widely distributed email saying it was good politics to press for school prayer after the terrorist attacks. "Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks on our nation, this might have been an unwise campaign approach. But not now," Falwell said.

Similar incidents occurred in 2001 in states across the country - from South Carolina, where state legislators wanted to turn the "moment of silence" into a moment of prayer, to Illinois, where the state House unanimously passed a bill to allow students to initiate group prayer in public schools, to West Covina, California where the school board voted to become the first district in Los Angeles County to begin the day with a moment of silence.


In God We Trust
Since September 11, interest in posting the national motto "In God We Trust" in public schools has grown. There is a vast difference between the appearance of this message on coins and dollar bills, on the one hand, and in public schools, on the other. When these words are directed at captive audiences of young school children by their schools, they send an impermissible message of government endorsement of religion. The Supreme Court has long distinguished between speech in general public settings and religious speech directed at public school students because students "are impressionable and their attendance is involuntary."

The American Family Association began its campaign to place posters displaying "In God We Trust" in public schools almost two years ago. Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove signed legislation requiring the motto in every public school classroom, auditorium and cafeteria throughout the state early in 2001. AFA then turned its attention to the rest of the country. AFA president Don Wildmon reports that since September, requests for the poster have gone up and the AFA Center for Law & Policy has offered to defend any school that is challenged for putting up the poster at no cost. AFA says nearly a quarter million posters are being displayed.

Michigan, Utah, New Jersey, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, Virginia and Louisiana are all states that have introduced or already passed legislation allowing or requiring schools to post "In God We Trust" plaques or posters. Randy Sharp, American Family Association's director of special projects, described the motto as a historical rather than a religious document. At the same time, Sharp said, his group has specifically pushed for "In God We Trust" posters in schools because "we think it's important for young people to recognize the religious heritage of our nation."

In Virginia, every school will be required to hang a poster with the words "In God We Trust, the National Motto, enacted by Congress in 1956," in accordance with a law signed by Gov. Mark R. Warner in May 2002. In several districts, schools will hang posters provided by the Family Policy Network, a state affiliate of AFA, which has been pushing the Virginia General Assembly to pass the law for the last two years.

Not all Virginians are happy with the new law. Mainstream Loudoun, a Loudoun County group active in First Amendment issues, has offered to donate posters with the motto "E pluribus unum" to all county schools. They say that the original motto, meaning "out of many, one," that was chosen by the founding fathers, is more inclusive and respectful of diversity.


Bible Studies
It is perfectly acceptable to teach about the Bible in public schools, so long as the instruction is presented objectively, as part of secular education, and not as history or from a particular sectarian perspective. However, across the country, school districts are being asked to adopt a Bible curriculum produced by a private group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS). The council says the aim is to foster an understanding of literature and history, but Elizabeth Ridenour, president of the group, has described her efforts as an attempt to "expose the kids to the biblical Christian worldview…." The NCBCPS claims that 101,000 students have taken the class in 195 school districts across the country, although it consistently refuses to provide details.

In Louisiana, NCBCPS' curriculum has been approved in eight parishes (counties) following the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's decision to leave the choice to local school boards. [People For the American Way Foundation sent a letter urging the state board to reject the course.]

The Louisiana Family Forum, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, has been actively involved in lobbying the state board and urging members to push local school boards to institute the program. Ridenour praised the group saying, "The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools appreciates the tremendous amount of time and work that Louisiana Family Forum has contributed toward returning Bible curriculum to the public schools of Louisiana. [They] have been invaluable in the success of numerous parishes implementing the elective Bible course and also in disseminating information to people statewide."

Florida has seen a number of incidents regarding the NCBCPS curriculum. The Miami-Dade County school board has recently been asked by the United Teachers of Dade's Christians for Morality caucus to adopt a new Bible course using the NCBCPS curriculum, and is preparing to conduct a "feasablility study" as to teaching a secondary school Bible course. [PFAWF has explained to the Miami school board why it would be improper for the board to offer a course based on the NCBCPS curriculum.] They are doing so despite the example of Lee County Florida, where an earlier edition of the NCBCPS "New Testament" curriculum was successfully challenged in court. The case cost the school system staff time and money including $95,000 in the plaintiffs' legal fees. [PFAWF was co-counsel to the plaintiffs in Lee County.]

In Rhea County, Tennessee, the same county where the Scopes trial was held, Judge Allan Edgar decided in February 2002 that the school district's Bible classes violated the First Amendment. The classes, held in three elementary schools, were taught by students from Bryan College, a Christian college in Dayton named for William Jennings Bryan. Judge Allen's ruling said county officials, "acted with both purpose and effect to endorse and advance religion in the public schools." At a school board meeting following the ruling, the audience of about 300 applauded as the board voted unanimously to appeal the decision. Board member Bruce Majors said, "we want to teach our children that the Bible is the truth. Our only course is an appeal."

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