Just to set the record straight: Yes, God is allowed in public schools. Metaphysically and constitutionally, you can’t keep deity out.
Based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishing separation of church and state, our courts have ruled that teachers — as representatives of the government — may not encourage belief in religion or any particular religion. They may, however, teach about religions.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …
Students, of course, are not government employees and are entitled to free expression of religion, including the right to pray, to talk about their beliefs and to wear T-shirts with messages such as the one pictured above, which reads:
Why do you allow so much violence in our schools.
a concerned student
Dear Concerned Student,
I’m not allowed in schools.
A number years back, some middle school administrators in California told a student he couldn’t wear a T-shirt with this message, because it supposedly violated the separation of church and state. The administrators who tried to enforce this ban, unfortunately, did not understand the issue and violated that student’s rights. It is this sort of misunderstanding of a complex issue that confuses people, leading them to think — mistakenly — that their religious freedoms are being threatened.
When it comes to public schools, separation of church and state is a complex issue, because it’s not quite as easy as saying that the limitation is on government employees, and students retain complete freedom of religious expression. In the case of the “Dear God” T-shirt, the administrators claimed they were prohibiting the student’s message, because they thought other students objecting to the sentiment might create a disturbance that could interfere with learning in the classroom.
According to Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based First Amendment Center:
It’s true that courts give school officials lots of discretion to censor student speech, especially if the speech is lewd, vulgar or hateful. All the school need do is give a good educational reason for doing so.
But the courts are stricter when it comes to banning political or religious speech. Unless the speech causes “substantial disruption,” school officials may not ban it.
The fact that some students don’t like the message on the T-shirt doesn’t constitute substantial disruption. In fact, to prohibit the shirt because some kids want to argue about it comes close to allowing a “heckler’s veto,” something the Supreme Court has said the government may not do.
Almost by definition, religious and political beliefs cause dissension and debate. But unless the speech is responsible for a clear pattern of fights, school officials can’t simply ban viewpoints that some people may find offensive.
The solution isn’t to punish the messenger, but rather to turn the debate into a teachable moment. Students who don’t like the message should be taught how to disagree with it in a manner that is both civil and respectful of the rights of others.
Because First Amendment issues in the public schools are so important and so complex, almost two decades ago, President Bill Clinton sent a message to every district in the country reminding them of their responsibility to respect the religious rights of students. And George W. Bush reinforced the guidelines accompanying his predecessor’s letter by threatening to withhold federal funding from districts violating students’ rights to freedom of religion.
The letter read, in part:
Nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door. While the government may not use schools to coerce the consciences of our students, or to convey official endorsement of religion, the public schools also may not discriminate against private religious expression during the school day.
Religion is too important in our history and our heritage for us to keep it out of our schools … . [I]t shouldn’t be demanded, but as long as it is not sponsored by school officials and doesn’t interfere with other children’s rights, it mustn’t be denied.
Since the deaths of 20 children and seven adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, people have been expressing their grief in many ways. In their despair, some have been asking where God was on that day and in that place. On Facebook, the image of the “Dear God” T-shirt pictured at the top of this article has been making the rounds. And former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (who is a Baptist minister) appeared on FOX news, saying:
We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.
As a trained minister, Huckabee should know the word “theodicy,” which is theological jargon for asking why God allows evil to exist. No limited human has ever been able to answer that question. It is one of the great Mysteries.
While I recognize the need to grieve, I hope the deaths of these children will not serve to draw more people like Huckabee and the people passing that image around on Facebook into despair and anger with public schools. Certainly educators’ understanding of freedom of religion is not perfect. Neither is the general public’s understanding.
Now is not a time for grieving to divide the public and the schools. Rather, let this time become — as the First Amendment Center scholar I quoted above phrased it — a teachable moment. It is time for us to teach one another about the place of God in schools.
And just now I have a funny picture in my head of Deity sitting awkwardly at one of those little elementary school desks, knees jutting out at odd angles, telling us something like:
Allow little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
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