I think most people would be surprised to realize just how much religious expression the U.S. Constitution allows in public schools.
Recently, a Powell County mother named Heather Estes objected to a program called “Upper Room” at Stanton Elementary School, where her son Devin is a fifth-grader.
Objecting, of course, is every citizen’s right. No problem there.
According to a Dec. 4 Herald-Leader story, each morning after breakfast is served but before classes start, students at Stanton Elementary can choose to attend Upper Room, a voluntary assembly in the school’s gym where a religious song is played and students recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Never miss a local story.
Devin, an atheist, doesn’t attend.
He said this has made him a social outsider and has caused him, on at least one occasion, to be bullied.
In addition to the Upper Room meetings, his mother said, the school has a teacher who plays Christian music in her classroom during the day.
This teacher allegedly told Devin that she’d like to debate atheists and referred to an Old Testament passage in which bears ate some guys who’d mocked a prophet.
That made Devin cry.
Bullying, of course, is wrong under any circumstances, as is religious coercion by schoolteachers. Powell County school officials, cited in the news article, promised to address the bullying, at least.
I sympathize with Devin’s discomfort. No one wants to see any kid feel like an outcast — for any reason, religious or secular.
But there seems to also be an idea here that the Upper Room program itself is a violation of law, that, to use Heather Estes’ term, it constitutes “illegal indoctrination.”
Michael Aldridge, executive director of the Kentucky ACLU, told the Herald-Leader that he thinks the morning program violates the Constitution.
I’m not a lawyer, but in my humble opinion, these good folks are mistaken. Assuming the information in the Herald-Leader’s news story was correct, which I do, the Upper Room probably is legal.
Whether you happen to find it appropriate is a matter of personal opinion.
But legal? Yes.
The clearest and most succinct document I’ve read on religion in public education is “Memorandum on Religious Expression in Public Schools,” written in 1995 as an official guide for educators by, of all people, then-President Bill Clinton.
“Religious freedom is perhaps the most precious of all American liberties — called by many our ‘first freedom,’” Clinton began.
Sometimes school officials, teachers and parents alike assume that schools must forbid all expressions of faith, he said.
“As our courts have reaffirmed, however, nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door.”
Students can’t be forced to take part in religious activities, Clinton wrote, but on the other hand, students who are religious enjoy wide-ranging freedoms, too.
They can pray at school alone or in groups, discuss their faith with each other and wear religious paraphernalia, just as other students are allowed to express their views on politics or similar topics.
Students can meet before or after classes on school property such as cafeterias — or, one would assume, gymnasiums — for services. They can participate in programs such as “see you at the flag pole” rallies. They can carry and read their Bibles. They can write about their faith in school assignments.
They can even witness to their unchurched classmates, Clinton said. They can hand out religious tracts.
All these activities are protected.
Teachers and administrators, as public employees, should remain neutral while on the job. They can’t lead religious worship, Clinton said, because that would look like an official endorsement.
On the other hand, teachers can teach moral values that might overlap with religion.
Schools can offer academic courses about the Bible or religious history or the like.
So far as I know, the First Amendment hasn’t changed since Clinton wrote his memorandum 22 years ago. I urge you to read it online.
Stanton Elementary’s Upper Room would fall within the law, it seems.
As I understand it, the program is voluntary, requires parental permission and doesn’t interfere with instructional time. The school district’s website says the high school’s Upper Room, at least, is student-led; Heather Estes says she saw a teacher leading a meeting at Devin’s elementary school.
Certainly, any bullying needs to be addressed. But in Devin’s case, that appears more a disciplinary issue regarding one errant kid than a religious-rights issue.
If teachers are leading the worship activities or badgering students who don’t participate, that’s a problem that could be fixed easily.
The guiding principle behind Clinton’s memorandum is that freedom of religion must be respected by both sides.
Atheists, including Devin, are absolutely free to not practice religion without facing legal, disciplinary or academic repercussions.
But Christian students and students of other faiths are equally free to express their beliefs in public and in private, even if other people find their expressions annoying.
There’s no constitutional protection against getting your feelings hurt or hearing a message you don’t particularly like.
As someone once observed, aptly, freedom of religion was never intended to mean freedom from religion.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.