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Constitutional freedoms and limitations:

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.

bullet 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 schools:
bullet May not promote a particular religion
bullet May not promote religion in general as superior to secularism
bullet They may not promote secularism.
bullet They may not be antagonistic to either religion or secularism
bullet 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.

bullet 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.

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An example of restrictions on teachers' religious expression:

As noted above, teachers in public schools:

bullet May not promote a particular religion
bullet 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 states, prohibits 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

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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 religions:

bullet The Wiccan upright pentagram (5 pointed star) or pentacle (pentagram within a circle) is often confused with the inverted pentagram or pentacle of Satanists. 
bullet 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:

bullet A high school in Texas prohibited Roman Catholic students from wearing rosary beads to school.
bullet 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).
bullet 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.

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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 activity. 

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.

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About pentagrams:

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 its symbols:

bullet 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 Gazette: 
bullet "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,]
bullet "The pentacle, a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle, symbolizes both protection and the elements of earth, air, fire, water and spirit." 2
bullet 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.
bullet However, some Christians are taught that:
bullet Wicca is a form of Satanism, and that both religions are very evil.
bullet That Wicca is the same as witchcraft which is condemned in the Bible
bullet 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.

By any objective standard:
bullet Wicca is very different from Christianity, and is essentially unrelated to Satanism.
bullet Wicca is unrelated to the witchcraft in the Bible.
bullet The Wiccan Rede specifically prohibits violence and bloodshed.
bullet Senator Adair's beliefs appear to be based on rumors of Satanic Ritual Abuse, which have been shown to be a hoax.
bullet 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 religious heretics.

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:

bullet the importance of tolerance in a religiously diverse country.
bullet past and present oppression by the Protestant majority against Roman Catholics, Jews Neopagans, Muslims and others.
bullet religious liberty as guaranteed by the U.S. constitution.
bullet beliefs and practices of Wiccans and the followers of other minority religions.

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 America.

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  1. "Court Protects Students Wearing Religious Symbols" at:
  2. Scott Rochat, "Dress code fuels pentacle dispute," The Emporia Gazette, 2000-DEC-18. Online at:
  3. "Cross-wearing woman fights suspension: Teacher's aide relieved of duty for 1 year due to symbol on necklace," WorldNetDaily, 2003-APR-23, at:

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Copyright © 1999 to 2003 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written 1999-AUG-20

Last updated 2003-APR-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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