As we approach December, public schools sometimes find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place with issues of religious expression during the holidays.
Questions about the use of sacred music and religious decorations in schools often put the matter of separation of church and state before us. There has been much written by constitutional scholars as well as judicial decisions on this topic, so we have some guidelines for addressing religion in our public schools.
The dilemma that schools face is trying to balance the appropriate recognition of religion in American life with the obligation not to encourage or sponsor a particular religious belief. The public is sometimes confused about how to deal with religion in public schools and there can be strong opinions on both sides of this issue.
The basis of the dilemma comes from the portion of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
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Within these few words are two powerful principles, separated by only a comma. There is the prohibition against government establishing or supporting religious belief or practices. This is the “establishment” clause. There is also the “free exercise” clause which guarantees religious freedom for citizens, including students in public schools.
Here are some suggestions that I believe will allow these two equally important freedoms to live peacefully together in our schools at this time of year.
1. Religion is a personal matter and individual students are free to express their religious beliefs in school as long as it does not interfere with other students or with the instructional program. One observer said as long as there are algebra tests, there will be prayer in school!
2. Religion is too important in our history to keep it out of our schools, but it should be addressed within the instructional program. The role of public schools is to provide secular instruction about religious traditions and not appear to advocate a particular religious viewpoint.
3. Students are captive audiences. Therefore, schools need to be sensitive to practices that may offend students whose families hold religious beliefs that are not shared by the majority. Just because no one complains does not give schools the right to become overly involved in religious practices. A student should not be made to feel like an outsider based on religious preferences.
4. Songs, symbols and practices which clearly have a religious purpose are not appropriate as stand-alone activities in schools. It is possible for schools to address these, but as part of the curriculum with a specific instructional purpose. Schools should include a study of a variety of holidays and religious traditions throughout the year and not just in December.
5. It is very appropriate for our public schools to teach values such as respect, honesty, caring, the value of hard work and responsibility.
Just because public schools may not promote religion, we certainly should be teaching the core values of our society.
These important constitutional principles are usually handled in our local schools without problems. But we need to remember when government and religion occupy the same room, the space between a rock and a hard place can become very narrow.
Julian D. Crocker is the County Superintendent of Schools for the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education.