When and how can students and teachers pray at school? Can they proselytize? Can teachers discuss religion in the classroom?
Answering those questions and others is the goal of new rules created by the San Luis Coastal Unified School District to give administrative guidance on religious expression and activities.
In May, an anti-gay letter to the editor from former San Luis Obispo High School teacher Michael Stack — quoting the Bible and saying “gays deserve to die” — was published in the school newspaper online, sparking community debate, concern and curiosity about religious behavior and free speech at school.
Stack voluntarily resigned within days of the letter’s publication.
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The new Board of Trustees policy, passed on Sept. 5, lists several categories, including prayer on campus, at graduation and at athletic events; classroom religious teachings; distribution of religious materials; use of school facilities by religious groups; and more.
“After the SLO Expressions issue popped up, we decided to review our administrative regulations to make sure they were legally aligned and provided clarity for administrators,” said Kimberly McGrath, the district’s assistant superintendent for educational services.
San Luis Obispo High teacher Scott Nairne, the school’s newspaper adviser, said the new policy is a good reminder of some of the lessons taught in teacher credential programs.
“I don’t think anybody is really surprised by it, but it does a good job of clarifying and reinforcing state law and policies you learn in teacher programs,” Nairne said. “We have 12 new teachers this year, and we had eight last year. Our principal spent an hour talking about the policy and did a good job of making sure we’re aware about what’s going on.”
Among the newly adopted rules for teachers and staff are the following:
▪ Faculty and staff shall not audibly pray with or in the presence of students or initiate or lead prayer.
▪ When instructors teach religion, including the Bible or other works, the information must be presented in an objective manner that doesn’t “advance or inhibit religion.” Teachers and staff may respond “factually” to student-initiated questions about religion.
▪ When acting in official capacities, faculty and staff are “prohibited from endorsing, soliciting, encouraging or participating in religious expression or activities with students, on campus or at school-sponsored events.”
▪ Staff may engage in non-disruptive private religious expression and activities on campus during non-instruction time and while away from students.
All of our school personnel, including teachers, either already have or will be given this training and follow-up training during the course of the school year.
Kimberly McGrath, San Luis Coastal assistant superintendent for educational services
Some of the rules for students are different, however. Those include:
▪ Students may initiate their own prayers in certain school settings such as before a sporting event, but school staff can’t pray with the students or encourage prayer.
▪ Students may distribute religious materials on campus, if it’s unrelated to school curriculum or activities, but staff can’t.
▪ Students may present a musical work with a religious theme in class or as part of a special performance; school personnel must provide a balanced presentation of secular and religious music from a variety of traditions throughout the school year.
Any proselytizing is prohibited on campuses and at school events. Teachers also must stop any activity by students that coerces other students to pray.
Religious groups that are student-sponsored and student-led have the same right of access to school facilities as non-religious student groups.
Nairne said that San Luis Obispo High has a broad range of religious perspectives including outspoken agnostic and Christian students, and a teacher should never try to influence a religious perspective.
The new policy was drafted in coordination with the district’s legal team.
“All administrators have received additional training specific to religious expression and freedom of speech already this school year,” McGrath said. “All of our school personnel, including teachers, either already have or will be given this training and follow-up training during the course of the school year.”