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Federal religion guidelines for public schools underscore students’ freedoms

WASHINGTON (BP)–New guidelines have been issued by the Department of Education on what it considers unconstitutional government speech on religion and protected private religious speech in the country’s elementary and secondary schools.

Among specific applications listed in the guidelines are:

— Students may communicate their religious beliefs in class assignments without being discriminated against.

— Students 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 Bible or religious clubs before school hours to the same extent other extracurricular student activities are permitted.

— Students selected on a neutral basis to speak at assemblies may express religious views, and school officials may clarify through disclaimers the schools are not endorsing those beliefs.

— While school officials may not organize prayer at graduation ceremonies or select speakers favoring religion, neutrally selected speakers may not be restricted in expressing religious beliefs. School officials may issue disclaimers clarifying the speakers’ views are not those of the schools.

— In order to receive federal education funds, school districts must certify they have no policies limiting constitutionally protected religious expression.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, applauded 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 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 and his Thanksgiving poster 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.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, however, criticized the Bush administration for trying “to push the envelope on behalf of prayer in public schools.”

“Administration lawyers have selectively read case law to come to the conclusions they wanted,” AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a written release. “Any public school that is unjustly threatened with loss of public funds can count on AU’s legal team for help.”

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?”

The ERLC’s Land, meanwhile, 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.'”

The guidelines may be accessed on the Internet at http://www.ed.gov/inits/religionandschools/prayer_guidance.html.