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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Spiritual Freedom at School

Students still have rights when it comes to reading the Bible, praying and evangelizing

By John W. Kennedy
April 10, 2011

While Christian students don’t have as much leeway to express their faith at public schools as they had half a century ago, in an increasing number of settings they are able to study Scripture in class, pray and hold after-school Bible clubs.

In a 7-1 vote in Engel v. Vitale in 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court declared daily recitation of sponsored prayers in public school as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. A year later in Abington School District v. Schempp, the high court voted 8-1 to prohibit public schools from mandated Bible reading.

In the wake of those and later court decisions, concerned Christians such as ordained Assemblies of God minister William H. Jeynes of Huntington Beach, Calif., have been working within the strictures of what is legal.

Jeynes notes that justices in the Schempp case declared that nothing in the decision prohibits the teaching of the Bible in public schools so long as it’s done objectively as part of a secular curriculum.

In recent years, Jeynes — who is also a nonresident scholar at Baylor University as well as a senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, founded by Princeton University faculty — has been working with others to try to convince public school districts to offer courses in the Bible as literature. So far, 1,200 schools in 43 states have adopted some form of teaching the Bible as literature or history. In fact, five states — Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee and Oklahoma — have passed directives encouraging public schools to offer a Bible course as an elective to high school students.

The American Civil Liberties Union prevailed when the state of Texas sought to make Bible courses mandatory for high school graduation. Yet the ACLU has concurred that districts can offer such classes as electives.

Two main groups that offer competing curricula to districts are pushing the effort: the Bible Literacy Project and the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. Some in the more evangelical National Council group believe the Bible Literacy Project has too liberal a worldview.

“But the bottom line is that the Bible is being taught in school,” says Jeynes, who isn’t a part of either camp.

Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., led efforts to write guidelines for how the Bible should be taught in public schools. By 2003, Haynes unified 35 disparate factions — including People for the American Way, the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress and National Education Association — to hammer out guidelines as to what a constitutional Bible course would look like. Subsequently, the effort has impacted other instruction. After years of shunning the topic, state standards in all social studies textbooks now include teaching about religion, Haynes says.


Exactly how free students are to express their religious beliefs is a matter of contention.

Haynes believes there has been a sea change toward students expressing their religious rights since a nadir in the late 1980s. He points to the See You at the Pole movement, started in 1990, in which students pray around school flagpoles, as well as the popularity of Christian Bible clubs, which are allowed to meet after hours under the Equal Access Act. Under the act, adopted in 1984, Christian activities and speech are to be treated the same as secular counterparts.

Compared to the religion-free zones most public schools had become a generation ago, Haynes says many Christian pupils feel confident in bringing Scriptures to school and sharing their faith with classmates.

“Today there is more student religious expression in our public schools than in any time in the last 100 years,” Haynes declares. “Students now know they have the right to pray alone or in groups as long as they aren’t disruptive.”

As long as activities are student-initiated — as opposed to being led by administrators or teachers — there is no “establishment” of religion. Twenty years ago, Haynes says, most school officials wouldn’t allow student-run Bible clubs, improperly claiming they violated church and state separation concerns.

“Students who form Bible clubs are not the government establishing religion,” Haynes says. “They’re just expressing their faith.”

Often where the conflict arises these days is when a student speaks at a school-sponsored event, such as a graduation ceremony. The Rutherford Institute in 2006 defended Henderson, Nev., high school valedictorian Brittany McComb. School officials unplugged McComb’s microphone after she began talking about her faith in Jesus Christ. Courts backed the school.

“The argument is always the student is using a school microphone, reading behind a school podium, and standing on the school stage,” says John W. Whitehead, founder of the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute.

Whitehead asserts that there has been a steady erosion of student liberties since the 1970s, in large part because when legal challenges arise Christians back down, or if they do fight, courts side with the district.

“The overarching problem is that schools are so secularized now that anything that looks Christian is suspect,” Whitehead says. “Most everything is challenged if the taboo words Jesus Christ are involved.”

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe that student-initiated prayer before high school football games over a public address system was illegal.

Whitehead says school officials — and courts — often are misinformed about the right of Christians to express their views. The Rutherford Institute has handled multiple cases in which students have been forbidden to give a report on Jesus as a historical figure because a teacher claims it would violate church-state separation.

A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey last September showed that awareness of what is legal remains a mystery to many Americans. For instance, only 23 percent of adults polled thought public school teachers legally could read from the Bible as an example of literature.


Mathew Staver, founder of the religious freedom organization Liberty Counsel, says students have myriad opportunities to demonstrate their beliefs during noninstructional time, including: meeting in Bible clubs before or after school; sharing their faith during lunch in the cafeteria; and praying with other students outside class.

“Between classes, students have a right to engage in religious speech as part of their interpersonal communication,” Staver says. He believes most disputes can be resolved out of court once school officials are enlightened.

“Some people assume that if it is religious, particularly Christian, it is impermissible,” Staver says. “They think the safe route is censorship, when oftentimes that’s the unconstitutional route.”

Staver and Whitehead say inconsistent court decisions have left many parents and students with the impression that they don’t have as many religious liberties as they really do.

Whitehead says the situation will improve only if there are more students such as Renée Griffith, whom the Rutherford Institute represented.

Griffith, who attended Journey Assembly of God in Butte, Mont., became her high school valedictorian in 2008. In a speech to be delivered at graduation, Griffith wrote about the importance of sharing Christ’s joy with others plus her passionate love for God.

The school superintendent vetted the speech and advised her to change “Christ” to “faith” and “love for God” to “love for mankind.” Griffith, backed by the Rutherford Institute, pointed out that the generic terms didn’t hold the same meaning.

On graduation day, the school principal warned Griffith to remove the specific religious references or she wouldn’t speak — even though the graduation program noted that views spoken by students at the ceremony were entirely their own and expressing such beliefs marked the essence of education. Griffith refused to water down her remarks.

Last November, the Montana Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that school officials in Butte had violated the First Amendment rights of Griffith, now a junior at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo.

“I fought this case because I don’t want people after me to have their rights taken away,” Griffith says. “There is no reason to be robbed of an opportunity to thank God.”

However, in a strikingly similar case handled by Liberty Counsel, valedictorian speaker Erica Corder of Monument, Colo., lost her court battle for mentioning God and Jesus. The court ultimately decided the school had the right to withhold her diploma unless she publicly apologized for sharing her Christian faith during her address.

Nevertheless, Haynes maintains misunderstandings of the law are becoming less frequent.

“More and more administrators and school boards understand the need to have good policies that protect the rights of students to express their faith appropriately in a public school,” Haynes says. “The role of administrators and teachers is to be the fair, neutral, honest broker to protect the rights of all the students and parents.”

Student religious rights have been strengthened under the Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind guidelines enacted in 2002, Haynes says. Schools that fail to certify they have no policy restricting court-protected prayer risk losing federal funds.

“A superintendent not only has to uphold the Establishment Clause and be careful not to inhibit or promote religion, but also has an obligation to protect students’ religious expression,” Haynes says. “They have an obligation to be proactive on this, and understanding that neutrality is not hostility toward or ignoring of religion.”


Assemblies of God National Student Outreach and Youth Alive Director Steve Pulis says while pastors or youth leaders don’t have the same level of entrée into school circles, youth who attend church do have opportunities. Pulis says students have great religious freedoms in public schools as long as they are the ones initiating the conversation and the action doesn’t disrupt the educational process.

“In between classes, before and after school, and at lunch students have the right to talk about Jesus just like they talk about their favorite sports star or TV show,” Pulis says. “Just like they can hand out an invitation to a birthday party, they can hand out an invitation to church.”

Thus, Pulis says, it’s up to churches to empower young people with the right tools for such a strategic mission field.

“A key influencer on every student is their friends,” Pulis says. “Students reach students better than anybody else.”

Kristin Burge, a senior at a high school in Schaumburg, Ill., is a leader at her Youth Alive group. The YA club has weekly meetings and has sponsored after-school activities such as a Thanksgiving “turkey bowl” and a Christmas party. Putting up posters listing the name of Jesus in the meeting room has emboldened Burge’s faith, even though she has endured the wrath of some students.

“Stepping forward for what I believe in has really taught me how to trust God,” says Burge, who attends Northwest Assembly of God in Mount Prospect. “We shouldn’t water down our beliefs.”

Jeynes says public schools can be an even more effective setting than church for students to impact other students because they are there five days a week. But, like Whitehead, he notes that parents sometimes must stand up to school boards and principals to ensure that existing religious liberties aren’t unlawfully curtailed.

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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