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Coalition Issues Guidance on Religion in Public Schools

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School officials seeking guidance on how to defuse conflicts over religion in public education now have another resource.

A coalition of religious and civil-liberties organizations, spearheaded by the American Jewish Congress, issued a six-page guide last week titled "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law."

Groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Legal Society endorsed the document. The "statement of consensus" on existing law covers 18 issues, including student prayer, teaching about religion in the classroom, and baccalaureate services.

"This responds to the canard that some people are seeking to have schools declared 'religion-free zones,'" said Mark J. Pelavin, the Washington A.J.C. representative.

The groups may disagree on what they would like the law to be, but an agreement on what the law states "provides guidance to students, teachers, administrators, and school boards," he said.

On the thorny issue of graduation prayer, the guide states that "school officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation nor may they organize a religious baccalaureate ceremony."

It notes that courts have reached conflicting conclusions on student-initiated prayers.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley endorsed the statement.

Previous Statement

Last month, some of the same groups endorsed a statement of principles designed to reduce conflicts over religion. (See Education Week, 3/29/95.)

The groups signing that statement, drafted by the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, pledged to soften their rhetoric in debates over religion in public schools.

One prominent group that endorsed the Freedom Forum's statement, but not the new document, was the American Center for Law and Justice, which frequently represents students in disputes with school districts over religion.

Officials of the center, founded by the broadcaster Pat Robertson, could not be reached for comment.

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