Panel Examining Student Religious Expression
Student religious expression is alive and well in public schools because of several intensive efforts to help educators and communities understand what is allowed under the U.S. Constitution, several experts told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last week.
"At long last, we do seem to be agreeing on more than we're disagreeing on," said Oliver Thomas, a lawyer for the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and a frequent mediator of disputes over religion in the public schools.
The May 20 hearing was the first of three to be held on schools and religion by the commission, an independent agency charged by Congress with researching and making recommendations on civil rights issues.
"We are concerned with those acts which deprive individuals of certain rights because of their religious beliefs and practices," commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry said during the spirited daylong hearing.
Groups on the political right and left have clashed repeatedly in recent years over student and employee religious expression in public schools.
Many conservative groups say public school administrators have trampled students' First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion. Many of those groups support an effort in Congress to amend the Constitution to provide greater protection of religious expression. The House Judiciary Committee approved the proposed amendment in March.
Civil liberties groups argue that the amendment is unnecessary. They concede that school officials sometimes restrict legal forms of student religious expression, such as reading a Bible during lunch period, but they say that better guidance for administrators is the solution.
Michelle L. Doyle, the Department of Education's liaison to the religious community, told the commission that much of the confusion over what types of student expression are allowed was eased by a 1995 set of guidelines sent to every district by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.
"We believe that these guidelines have helped to clear up much of the confusion regarding school prayer and helped create an atmosphere that protects the religious freedom of the students," she said.
Julie K. Underwood, the incoming general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said the guidelines "have been defusing controversy. Public education has no need to be a battleground on religious liberty."
But she acknowledged that with some 15,000 districts across the country, new controversies are bound to bubble up and in forms that may not be answered neatly by one set of guidelines.
Representatives of conservative legal groups told the commission that even since the distribution of the guidelines, they continue to be inundated with complaints that public school administrators have restricted religious expression that should be allowed.
Ronald D. Rissler, a legal coordinator for the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, cited numerous incidents in which teachers or administrators barred students from selecting religious topics for class assignments or from distributing religious materials to fellow students.
The institute "has witnessed an alarming increase in the number of requests for legal assistance in the area of religious discrimination" despite the 1995 guidelines, he said.
Several other legal experts said the answer to such disputes should be renewed efforts to educate administrators and teachers about what the law allows.
"A lot of these are just incidents," said Marc D. Stern, a lawyer with the New York City-based American Jewish Congress. "You make a phone call and you clear it up."
Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., urged schools of education to take responsibility for teaching future teachers the legal issues involving religious expression in public schools.
"Teacher-educators are, by and large, tone deaf to this issue," said Mr. Haynes, who also mediates church-state disagreements in public schools around the country.
The Civil Rights Commission also heard from Mohamed A. Nimer, the research director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who said there are a growing number of conflicts between public schools and Muslim students over accommodation of daily prayers required by Islam.
"Muslims are obliged to offer prayers five times a day, one of which is midday when children are in school," he said. Administrators should be able to find a way to accommodate such prayers, he said.
The commission will hold a second hearing on June 12 in New York City, and a third on June 23 at a site to be determined. It plans to release a report by the end of the year.
Vol. 17, Issue 37, Page 18