IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Students are in a particularly vulnerable situation while at public schools. Teachers
can and do harass students who express their religious faith. Fortunately, there is a
"wall of separation" between church and state which theoretically
prohibits the public schools from taking any action to either promote or discourage religious
faith. For example, if a school permits student political or hobby clubs of any sort, then they
must also permit students to organize Bible study or other religious courses. Schools are free
to teach about religious beliefs. Their courses can describe the positive and negative effects
that religion has had on society. But they are required to give a balanced presentation and are
not permitted to favor one faith group over another. Nor are they allowed to favor religious
faith over no religious faith.
Unfortunately, the laws are not necessarily followed by all teachers, principals and
school districts. Part of the problem is a misunderstanding by school officials of their
obligations under the constitution. Some feel that all religion is banned throughout the
system; they have reacted by violating the student's constitutional rights of freedom of speech,
assembly or religion. For example, Christian children have been prohibited from bringing their
Bibles to school, or forbidden to pray before a meal. These conflicts can normally be cleared
up with little effort. Many Christian litigation groups are actively involved in this area. The
Rutherford Institute is believed to be the largest such organization. They have
stated:"[M]any cases can be solved with a strong and professional letter from an attorney, a
legal memorandum from our office, or a phone call from a staff member."
Various amendments to the US constitution have been proposed that would have the effect of
reducing this wall of separation and thus expose students to great harassment. Representative
Ernest Istook (R-OK) introduced a "Religious Liberties" amendment on 1995-NOV-28. It has
received increasing attention in 1996 and
In some areas of the United States, particularly those where the overwhelming percentage of
people follow the same religion, the school system may take on the religious nature of the
surrounding area and actively promote a religion or a particular branch of a religion. This makes
life very difficult for students who are of another religion. They can be seriously and
continually harassed. Other students often react by physically attacking or ridiculing those
of minority faiths.
Example of Religious Harassment
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a press release on 1997-AUG-14 relating to the
persecution of Jewish students within the Alabama School System. A law suit was launched on
1997-AUG-4 against the Pike County School Board and administrators for allegedly:
The suit will be heard in the U. S. District Court for the Middle District in Alabama.
It involves four Jewish children of one family who attended both elementary and high schools
in the county. Types of harassment allegations include:
||violating the constitutional right of the students' free exercise of religion
||not taking action to stop the religiously based harassment, intimidation and threats against
||violating the constitutional prohibition against school endorsement of religion.
Their parents have complained to personnel at all levels in the school system, from teachers to
the school board. During one appeal, a school superintendent allegedly suggested that the
continual harassment would end if the family would convert to Christianity. A teacher
explained "If parents will not save souls, we have to."
||being denied the right to practice their faith while other students freely practice theirs
||being denied the right to express their religious beliefs
||being forced to participate in Christian assemblies and classroom activities.
||being the victims of religious bigotry and hate crimes perpetrated by other students
||not experiencing any effort by faculty, administrators and school board members to stop the
Specific allegations of include:
Pamela Sumners, cooperating attorney for ACLU Of Alabama said: "These harmful and
hateful acts are the product of a culture of religious bigotry which permeates the Pike County
school system...They have been perpetrated or tacitly endorsed by the very officials who are
duty-bound to operate our schools in a manner which comports with the Constitution and morally
bound to operate the schools so that all children are treated equally and with respect."
||Although Christian students were allowed to wear crosses, the Jewish children were forbidden
to wear Star of David lapel pins. The teacher claimed it was a gang symbol.
||The students were not permitted in physical education classes while wearing their yarmulkes
(religious head covering).
||Two of the Jewish children were physically assaulted by other students because of their
||Swastikas have been drawn on their lockers, bookbags and jackets
||The Jewish children were ordered by teachers to bow their heads during Christian prayers,
even though the teachers knew that the children were Jewish. Once, force was used.
||A Jewish child who had disrupted class was ordered to write an essay titled "Why Jesus
||Overtly Christian religious classroom activities and assembly presentations are common
||A local minister told the students at a school assembly that anyone who had not accepted
Jesus as Savior was doomed to hell. A Jewish child left the assembly while her classmates jeered.
She suffered nightmares for weeks.
The mother of the Jewish children commented: "Every day that I send my children to Pike
County schools, I wonder if I am sending them into a war zone. Every day that I send my children
to Pike County schools, I feel that the environment threatens every value that my husband and I
have tried to teach them at home. I have asked school officials how I can teach my children to be
tolerant human beings and not bigots when they are subjected to outright religious persecution
and bigotry in school."
Reference:Case: Paul Michael Herring v. Dr. John Key, Superintendent of Pike County Schools.
News release issued on 1997-AUG-14 by American Civil Liberties Union.
Copyright © 1998 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Latest update: 2000-JUN-4
Author: B.A. Robinson