To the Editor:
In Roger L. Beckett’s Commentary (“Why Religion Belongs in the Classroom,” July 7, 2017), he makes some valid points on the need to teach religion in our nation’s public schools. His essay, however, glosses over critical constitutional distinctions and particular religious-coercion issues raised by a new Florida law he cites. Public schools are not devoid of religion. Over 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools may teach about religion in a secular and objective manner. And students are permitted to engage in a host of voluntary and private religious activities such as group prayer during nonclass time and participation in after-school or noncurricular religious clubs. But the First Amendment’s establishment clause prohibits school-sponsored religious indoctrination and coercion.
That is exactly what Florida’s so-called Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act authorizes. In the classroom, it plainly empowers a teacher or parent to give a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim prayer to children as young as 5, or conversely, an ethical-humanist message expressing disbelief in religion. It also authorizes K-12 students to proselytize or denigrate religion at compulsory and noncompulsory events such as football games, holiday assemblies, or graduation. Constitutional prohibitions on government advancement, endorsement, or coercion of religion may be distasteful to some. However, they are the reason why religion has flourished in America. Public schools’ adherence to these prohibitions reflects a profound respect for religious freedom and recognition of the extraordinary diversity of religions represented by the students in our public schools.
David L. Barkey
Southeastern Area & National Religious Freedom Counsel
Boca Raton, Fla.
A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2017 edition of Education Week as Religious Coercion Has No Place in Public Schools