The U.S. public schools is often the battleground between the principle of
church-state separation and religious freedom. Conflicts are sometimes caused by
the desire of a student to express their faith and school authorities who want
uniformity and tranquility among their student body. Other times, conflicts
involve followers of the dominant religion, Christianity, who wish to express
their religion within the schools, in the form of prayers, religious signs, etc.
Church-state separation: The establishment
clause of 1st Amendment of the U.S. constitution, as interpreted by the courts,
requires that public
school teachers, principals, and boards be religiously neutral. This means that
May not promote a particular religion
May not promote religion in general as superior to secularism
They may not promote secularism.
They may not be antagonistic to either religion or secularism
They must neither advance nor inhibit religion or secularism.
Some school teachers, principals and boards work under the misconception
that the separation of church and stare requires them to make public schools
into a religion-free zone. This is a naive understanding.
Religious freedom: Often overlooked is the free
exercise clause of the same Amendment. It guarantees freedom of religious expression,
including speech, assembly, and practice. There is no age limit contained in the free
exercise clause; it applies to students as well as adults. The US
Supreme Court has ruled that students' rights do not stop at the school door.
One way of expressing one's religion is to wear religious jewelry (pendants,
rings, broaches, etc.). Another is to wear clothing (t-shirts, etc.)
containing religious statements. Both are protected rights, in most cases.
A state of tension exists between these two clauses within
the public schools. Fortunately, the courts have provided rulings on many
situations: enforced prayer in classrooms, freedom to organize Bible clubs,
posting the 10 commandments in school, etc. The matter of religious jewelry and
clothing is much less ambiguous. Courts have decided that schools do not have
the right to limit valid self-expression, unless it is inflammatory and causes
disruption in the classroom. However, some schools try to ban some forms of
religious expression because they fear that youth gangs may adopt the same
jewelry and clothing in order to identify their members.
An example of restrictions on teachers' religious expression:
As noted above, teachers in public schools:
May not promote a particular religion
May not promote religion in general as superior to secularism.
In most school districts, regulations prevent teachers from displaying
elements of their personal faith, such as a placing a Bible, Torah, or
Qur'an on their desk top. The
Pennsylvania Public School code, and similar regulations in other
teachers from wearing religious garb. This includes the wearing of a necklace containing a
cross, crucifix, Star of David,
Wiccan Pentacle, etc, if the symbol is
visible to students. They can wear a religious necklace if they wish, but the symbol has to be tucked behind
clothing out of sight. Brenda Nichol, 43, has been aware of the regulation
since 1997, and has been threatened with suspension twice for violating
the code. On 2003-APR-8, she again refused to either remove the necklace or tuck
in the cross. She was suspended for a year from her post as a
public-school teacher's aide.
She said: "I could not follow that code in my heart. I could not deny Christ."
She is being defended by the Fundamentalist Christian American Center
for Law and Justice. 3
Some examples of religious discrimination against students:
The most common religious jewelry remains the cross (worn by Protestant
students) and crucifix (worn by Catholic students). These are so common that
they are rarely if ever banned. Most of the instances of intolerance
concerning religious jewelry in the public schools have been directed against followers of minority
The Wiccan upright pentagram
(5 pointed star) or pentacle (pentagram within a circle) is often
confused with the inverted pentagram or pentacle of Satanists.
The Jewish Star
of David (6 pointed star) is sometimes confused with both Wiccan, Satanic, and gang symbols.
Some examples of clothing restrictions have been:
A high school in Texas prohibited Roman Catholic students from wearing rosary beads to
A high school in Michigan required a Jewish male student to
remove his head covering in class. (Male Jews frequently wear a yarmulke as a symbol of their
faith. It covers the top back of the head).
A high school in Michigan banned Wiccan and other Neopagans from wearing pentagrams (5 pointed stars with one point
upwards) and pentacles (an upright pentagram inside a circle).
In each case, the schools
justified their actions by "appealing to the compelling need to keep gangs out of
schools." They were concerned that the rosaries, cap, and star could be
interpreted as gang symbols. The first two schools lost their cases because they had "violated
the boys’ rights to free speech and freedom of religion. The school hadn’t shown
that allowing the students to wear the beads would disrupt the educational environment."1 The third case was settled out of court in favor
of the Wiccan.
About gang symbols:
Some school administrations are particularly concerned that a teen gang may
wear some symbol as a method of identifying their members to each other. Most of
the bannings of religious symbols appear to be related to fear of such gang
It is quite impossible for an administration to eliminate the wearing
of gang symbols by their students. This is because any unique
symbol or piece of jewelry can be adopted by a group to identify their
membership. They might adopt an upright pentagram (a Wiccan symbol), a
Star of David (a Jewish symbol) or an inverted pentagram (a Satanic
symbol). However, we have never heard of any gang doing this. They might
just as easily adopt a cross (an Anglican and Protestant symbol) or a
crucifix (a Catholic symbol) of a specific style. For example, they might
adopt an oversize cross or crucifix that is larger than that worn by
Christian students; gang membership would then be indicated by the size of
the cross. Or they might adopt a particular stylized shape, or a unique
color, or subtle feature in the design.
Some school administrators have banned Wiccan pentagrams on the basis that
they might cause disturbances in the school. They are at least partly justified
in this opinion. Different students have widely varying beliefs about Wicca and
Wiccans regard the pentagram as their prime religious symbol. It is
a positive image, representing both protection and the five necessary
components needed to support life. According to the Emporia
"Wicca is a nature-based religion
that takes many of its rituals from pre-Christian Europe. The
belief includes worship of a god and goddess, a 'Rule of Three'
that says any help or harm worked by practitioners will come back
on them three times, and a statement that a practitioner may do
anything, so long as no one else is harmed." [The
statement referred to is the Wiccan Rede; it actually forbids
actions which may harm anyone, including the practitioner,]
"The pentacle, a five-pointed star surrounded by a
circle, symbolizes both protection and the elements of earth, air,
fire, water and spirit." 2
Christians and other non-Wiccans who have been educated about the
beliefs, practices, and symbols of minority religions in America would
also treat a pentagram as a peaceful, positive symbol.
However, some Christians are taught that:
Wicca is a form of Satanism, and that both religions are very
That a pentagram is a profoundly evil symbol. During a dispute
in the Roswell [NM] Independent School District over a
pentagram banning, the Church on the Move took an active
role supporting the prohibition. New Mexico State Senator Rod Adair, (R-Roswell)
said: "In an era when the term ‘zero tolerance’ for drugs, guns,
knives and violence is the watchword of the day, it is inconceivable that we
would allow symbols which directly promote Satanic worship and the violence and
bloodshed which are part of it." Mary Reeves, a member of the Church
said: "Why would they [the
Neopagans] pick a violent symbol to promote their love? It’s been known as
being violent from the medieval age on."
The Wiccan Rede specifically
prohibits violence and bloodshed.
Senator Adair's beliefs appear to be based on rumors of Satanic Ritual Abuse,
which have been shown to be a hoax.
Ms. Reeves' beliefs are based on Christian propaganda that dates
back to the "burning times"
when the Church in Western Europe actively persecuted and executed
However, the fact remains that some Christians sincerely believe
that Wicca and a pentagram are a profoundly evil religion and symbol,
condemned by the Christian God. If a sufficiently high percentage of
students hold to these beliefs, a pentagram-wearing Wiccan could
actually trigger a commotion in the classroom. But the cause of the
disturbance would be misinformation believed by the Christian
students, rather than the wearing of a pentagram or the presence in
the classroom of a Wiccan.
Faced with this dichotomy of beliefs, it is understandable why a school
administration might want to simply ban pentagrams. It is a simple, neat,
easily implemented solution that works in most cases. It is also
unconstitutional, and a violation of the Wiccan's First
Amendment religious rights. Another alternative might be to take
advantage of the controversy by educating students in:
the importance of tolerance in a religiously diverse country.
past and present oppression by the Protestant majority against Roman
Catholics, Jews Neopagans, Muslims and others.
religious liberty as guaranteed by the U.S. constitution.
beliefs and practices of Wiccans and the followers of other minority
Some might feel that educating students in minority religions might
automatically violate the principle of separation of
church and state. This is not true. A comparative religion course
which explains the beliefs and practices of various religions and secular
belief systems is quite constitutional -- and badly needed in North