God in the Schools: Respected or Rejected?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
"The truth is that public schools are increasingly hostile to all things Christian."
A recent article by Charles Haynes in the USA Today proclaimed "the truth about God in public schools." Haynes claims that while our schools may have once been religion-free zones, they are not so any longer. In fact, Haynes says, today the public schools are more respectful of religion than ever before, with many textbooks directly addressing various religions. Haynes writes that those who say there are problems with religion in schools are simply out of touch.
Mr. Haynes is an academic. He hobnobs with other academics and glad-hands school officials for a living. By contrast, I am a constitutional litigator. I spend my days in the courtrooms fighting these issues on the front lines. In this capacity, I see a different side of the schools than Mr. Haynes. Perhaps it is understandable, then, that I reach an entirely different conclusion as to the state of religion in the schools.
In my view, it is Mr. Haynes who is out of touch.
The truth is that public schools are increasingly hostile to all things Christian. As the current war on Christmas amply demonstrates, schools are anything but friendly toward Christianity. From the changing of the name of Christmas break to the "Winter Holiday," to the decoration of "holiday trees," to prohibiting songs that mention "Christmas" or Christ, our public schools are competing to see who can erase all vestiges of Christianity first.
While Mr. Haynes may be correct that the general topic of religion is addressed more frequently in schools today, the specifics of Christianity tend to be addressed only in a disrespectful way.
Rather than debate the issue in the abstract, though, allow me to set forth concrete examples of the bias I contend pervades our public schools.
In <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Medford, New Jersey, kindergartner Zachary Hood was told to draw a picture of something he was thankful for at Thanksgiving, and that the posters would be displayed for all parents to see at an upcoming open house. But when the school saw that Zachary had drawn a picture of Jesus, they removed it. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the school in a subsequent lawsuit brought by Zachary's parents.
In Boulder, Colorado, students were instructed to select their favorite book for an oral book report. When eleven year old Elizabeth Johnson chose the book of Exodus from the Bible, she was forbidden because it may be "offensive" to some.
In Westfield, Massachusetts, students organized a high school Bible club. When they distributed candy canes with a message attached saying "Merry Christmas" on one side and containing a Bible verse on the other, they were suspended from school, despite the school's policy of allowing other clubs to freely distribute non-religious messages.
In Kettering, Ohio, a kindergartener was prohibited from giving out bags of jelly beans to her classmates at Easter because they contained a religious poem.
In Denver, Colorado, a teacher was ordered to remove his personal Bible from his desk and two Christian books from his bookshelf where students could retrieve them.
In Santa Fe, Texas, student-led prayers before high school football games were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In an earlier lower court order in the same case, a federal judge ordered students and even ministers not parties to the lawsuit not to pray in Jesus' name at graduation ceremonies, and instructed that federal marshals would be on hand to take violators to jail. The judge warned, "Anyone who violates these orders, no kidding, is going to wish that he or she had died as a child when this court gets through with it."
In Prince George's County, Maryland, school administrators renamed "Christmas trees" and the "Christmas pageant," calling them "holiday trees" and the "holiday pageant," respectively.
In South Orange, New Jersey, a school district banned the playing of instrumental Christmas carols, apparently concluding that even the melodies of such songs were offensive.
On the other hand, as Mr. Haynes rightly points out, schools have increasingly allowed certain religious practices of late. These practices, however, tend routinely to involve non-Christian religions. Here are some examples:
In Contra Costa County, California, seventh grade students were forced to role-play Muslim adherents, recite prayers to Allah, and simulate fasting for Ramadan. According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, these activities were "not overt religious exercises that raise Establishment Clause concerns." It was merely educational exercise.
In Woodland Hills, California, students as young as eight years old were required to cast spells, invent their own charms, and pretend they were witches. Objecting parents were not permitted to opt their children out of the exercises. Nevertheless, the federal courts ruled in favor of the school, finding the religious content minimal and any harm outweighed by the educational gain.
In State College, Pennsylvania, an elementary school held a "winter holiday" program that included a Menorah and a Kwanzaa display, books about Chanukah and Kwanzaa, but no Christmas symbols or books. Students sang songs about Chanukah and Kwanzaa, too, but the only marginally Christmas song was called "Christmas at the Mall," and adapted a traditional Christmas melody to secularized lyrics. Instead of a Christmas tree, the school displayed a "giving tree" adorned with hats, gloves and doves. A federal court found the holiday display constitutional, notwithstanding its derogatory treatment of Christmas.
Yes, Charles, there is a Santa Claus . . . just don't mention the baby Jesus.
Mr. Haynes cites the prevalence of student religious clubs as proof that the schools are no longer hostile to religion. While there are indeed many Bible clubs and the like on public school campuses, the reality is that they have often had to fight tooth and nail to just to obtain official recognition. To cite just one example,
In Howell, Michigan Christian students formed a group called the Traditional Values Club. School officials, however, have steadfastly opposed the group and refused to grant them official recognition, despite having actively assisted in forming and recognizing a "Diversity Club." In fact, a teacher even donated a rainbow flag -- symbol of the homosexual rights movement -- which to this day is prominently displayed in the school as the diversity flag.
When the Traditional Values Club donated a Christian flag and asked that it be displayed alongside the diversity flag, though, they were flatly refused. In fact, school officials have gone so far as to call the Traditional Values Club a "hate group."
The presence of religious clubs, then, does not mean that schools respect religion. There is a vast difference between grudging allowance by means of a federal lawsuit and genuine respect.
Charles Haynes is a pluralist. He seeks to find "common ground," whereby we all get along and practice mutual respect for one another's religious beliefs and practices. While this sounds like a reasonable goal, the reality is that the means by which the schools seek to achieve it is by banning all claims to absolute truth. One student's truth cannot be permitted to claim superiority over another student's truth. Relativism becomes the new orthodoxy.
The increased role of religion in our public schools is not necessarily good news for Christians. Absolute truth has been sacrificed on the altar of relativism. The culture war, then, continues to rage on the public school campuses. Let us not be lulled into a false sense of complacency by those who would suggest the war is over.
Mr. Crampton serves as Chief Counsel of the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy (CLP), a public interest-type law firm. The CLP=s web site is www.afa.net/clp. Mr. Crampton=s daily radio show, AWe Hold These Truths,@ can be heard on almost 200 radio stations nationwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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