Students deserve to be informed of religious rights

By Freedom Newspapers

Everyone celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday Monday recognizing the religious leader who led a faith-based campaign against government racial discrimination. Yet few noticed that Tuesday was Religious Freedom Day, created to celebrate the constitutional right, which 300 million of us still enjoy, just as did the Rev. King.

In his proclamation to note the observance, President George W. Bush called on all Americans to, “commemorate this day with appropriate events and activities in their schools, place of worship, neighborhoods and homes.”

In their schools? Yes. As the Supreme Court noted in 1969, public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Despite what you might have heard about “separation of church and state,” the expression of religious beliefs remains a constitutionally protected right, even in public schools. Many school officials need an education on this point.

Just last month, for example, school officials told an Illinois high-school senior that the statement she wanted in the yearbook was too religious and couldn’t be submitted. About the same time, another high-school senior in Washington state wanted to write a religious children’s book for a project, but was denied because the school’s policy requires projects be sectarian, not religious. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar closer to home.

In both cases, officials reversed their position after attorneys from the American Center for Law and Justice based in Washington, D.C. sent letters to the schools explaining that the U.S. Constitution guarantees students religious freedom and freedom of speech because these are unalienable, God-given rights, not privileges permitted by men or benefits bestowed by the state. ACLJ’s mission is to “educate, promulgate, conciliate, and where necessary, litigate, to ensure that those rights are protected … .” The organization keeps very busy.

If anyone is unclear on these rights, the U.S. Department of Education sums them up this way:

Students can pray, read their Bible or other religious books and talk about their faith at school during school hours.

Students can organize prayer groups and religious clubs and announce their meetings.

Students can express their faith in their class work and homework.
Teachers can organize prayer groups and Bible studies.

Students may be able to go off campus to have a Bible study during school hours.
Students can express their faith at a school event, including graduation ceremonies.

This probably would be a good time for public school teachers, principals and other officials to mention these rights to their students.