New Guidelines Issued to Protect Religious Speech in America’s Classrooms

Feb 14, 2003 01:47 PM EST

WASHINGTON – The new guidelines issued by the Department of Education on constitutional vs. unconstitutional government speech on religion, is praised by religious leaders across the board. Section 9524 Certification Process protects private religious speech in the country’s elementary and secondary school.

“Although the Constitution forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer, students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” states the guideline.

The guideline contends that students may communicate their religious beliefs in class assignments without being discriminated against; they may pray and read their Bibles or other religious materials during non-instructional time “to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities;” students may organize prayer meetings and religious clubs before school hours to the same extent other student activities are permitted; Neutrally selected students to speak at assemblies may express religious views. Such speakers include neutrally selected students at graduation ceremonies. While school officials may not organize prayers, the selected speaker may not be restricted in expressing their religious beliefs. – School officials may clarify through disclaimers that the school is not endorsing those particular beliefs.

The guidelines also specified the condition to receiving federal education funds. To receive the funds, the school district must certify that they have no policies limiting constutionally protected religious expression.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, commended President Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige "for clarifying and re-emphasizing the freedom of students to express their religious beliefs and convictions while on public school property. We need to consistently remind school administrators and rabid secularists that the Supreme Court has made it clear ... that students do not leave their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, assembly and worship at the boundaries of public school property."

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which recently settled a lawsuit on behalf of Zachary Hood applauded the guidelines. Zachary Hood was prevented from reading his Beginner Bible in class and had his Thanksgiving poster taken down because he said he was “thankful for Jesus.”

-- In order to receive federal education funds, school districts must certify they have no policies limiting constitutionally protected religious expression; each school district must send in an annual letter of “compliance to the guidelines” to the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty praised the guidelines, especially the section protecting students' freedom in class assignments. The Becket Fund recently settled a lawsuit on behalf of Zachary Hood, whose reading from a Beginner's Bible to his class was prevented. His Thanksgiving poster was also taken down because he said he was "thankful for Jesus."

"This is a great moment for students in public schools all across America," Becket Fund President Kevin Hasson said in a written statement. "At last, we finally have 'teeth' in the guidelines that supposedly have governed school policies since the Clinton administration. These rules make clear that local school officials who treat students the way that Medford, New Jersey, officials treated Zack will place themselves in jeopardy of losing federal funds. It's a new day for Zack and for millions like him."

The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs expressed mixed feelings about the guidelines.

"Many of these guidelines are consistent with what the Baptist Joint Committee has advocated for decades," BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said in a written statement. "But in some areas, the new guidelines create more room for abuse and state-sponsored religion.

"The guidelines arguably would allow a student speaker at a school assembly to launch into a hateful hell-fire-and-damnation sermon complete with an altar call," Walker said. "Is that what we want for captive audiences in public schools?"

Richard Land however called the guidance "particularly helpful in making it clear to would-be censors of student speech that a student who has earned the right to address an assembly through having become valedictorian, salutatorian, etc., has the right to express his or her convictions, including religious beliefs. The guidelines make it clear that we are not talking about school-sponsored or school-content-dictated speech but student-initiated, student-content-dictated speech.

"When some critics say that this means that a student valedictorian might make an overtly religious speech and give an 'altar call,' my response is that the guidelines make clear the school is free to disassociate itself from the students' remarks," Land said. "My reply to students, parents and teachers who might be offended by such speech is to say, 'Surely this is not the first or last time that you will be offended by speech in this very pluralistic society in which you keep reminding us that we live. I can assure you people of religious conviction are offended on and off school property every day. There is no constitutional protection against being offended. There is a constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.'"

By Pauline C.