The Separation of Religion and School
Matthew Lynch – In 1996, a New Jersey Highland Regional High School student sued the school because of the school’s decision to have a prayer before graduation.
The court found that it was unjust to violate the religious rights of students who did not want a prayer at their graduation. In another case, an Appeals Court ruled in 1998 in favor of a policy of the Madison School District of Rexburg Idaho that allowed the top four graduating students to make a speech, which included recitation of prayers.
The difference here was that the control of religious content was in the hands of the individual students, and not the school. The court ruled that because selection of student speakers was based upon their academic standing, complete discretion should be awarded to the students to choose the content of their speech.
Another important question related to religion-related rights is whether or not it is legal to allow religious groups to use public school facilities to propagate their religious beliefs. Answering this question is not an easy task. Let’s take a look at what is followed in practice on this matter to understand the concept better.
New York City allows the rental of schools for community activities, which include religious discussions however the use of school facilities for religious services is prohibited. The Court validates this stance by asserting the premise that public schools wish to distance themselves from being identified with a particular religious service, and appearing to be advocating one religion or another.
In another instance, the Supreme Court ruled against having student prayers at football events because that violated the Establishment Clause. A particular School District’s decision to conduct a student vote on the issue did not meet with the approval of the law. The Court maintained that it could not allow such sponsorship of any kind of religious activity. The decisions reached in these court cases should not lead us to believe that the law is completely against the practice of student prayers.
Provisions are made to safeguard the interests of those who do practice religion. Part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 titled “School Prayer” ensures that the U.S. Department of Education plays an active role in making sure that school districts allow for school prayer within the boundaries of the law. Constitutionally protected prayer is something that has always been protected by the law.
The issue of religion in schools also emerged around the question of whether or not public schools were propagating a religion—that of secular humanism. Those of a different religious allegiance who contended that they found such propagation offensive raised the issue. This was clearly a case of affiliation to strongly held religious values. Christian schools with core fundamentalist Christian values were at the center of the conflict.
When state lawmakers required Christian schools to conform to minimal education standards set up by the state, the schools complained that following state curriculum guidelines would be tantamount to teaching secular humanism to their students. Christian schools maintained that the Christian fundamentalist dictum relied heavily on the authority of the scriptures, and not secular humanism, which was the religion of public schools. The law stood firm. The state minimum standards had to be included in all schools accredited by the state.
Matthew Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University.
He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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