Schools walk fine line balancing faith, legal prohibitions

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DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — Whoever said the courts have kicked God out of public schools hasn't visited Beverlye Magnet School lately.

Nearly every Tuesday before class a sizable contingent of the student body gathers in the gym for First Priority, a student religious organization.

On a recent Tuesday, First Priority's weekly meeting played out in the usual fashion. Students gathered and socialized for a little bit before Jonathan Blair, a local youth pastor, gave a brief speech about his faith and how he feels it has benefited his life and that of others.

Erika Farmer, a Beverlye student, regularly attends First Priority and said she feels it provides a good experience for her and other students to explore their beliefs.

"It's an opportunity besides going to church to learn more about God," she said.

First Priority at Beverlye is just one of a number of campus religious organizations active throughout the Dothan City Schools and other public school systems around the country.

Allen Singley, a youth pastor who volunteers with the program, said First Priority provides students with an opportunity to explore something that's very important to them, just like any other student interest club. Singley said he and other volunteers take care not to overstep.

"It's up to students whether they come or not," he said.

Religious expression in schools is a perennial hot topic as conflicts between students' rights to express their beliefs and Constitutional prohibitions against state establishment of religion crop up from time to time in courts and the media. While prayer and religious activities led by school officials during school time is forbidden by well-settled case law, other activities raise questions concerning what is permissible under the law.

Chuck Ledbetter, Dothan City Schools superintendent, said that during his short time as city school superintendent no challenges to any religious activities on school campuses have arisen. Ledbetter said that his system strives to allow students to express their beliefs without forcing others to feel compelled to share those beliefs. Maria Johnson, principal of Beverlye, said that outside youth ministers provide services for First Priority instead of faculty so the school can avoid any possible appearance of impropriety.

Mark Broadman, president of the Alabama Council of School Board Attorneys, said the main concern for schools is ensuring that government resources or officials aren't used to promote religious beliefs. Broadman said school faculty can act as sponsors for student religious organizations, but may not force students to attend or offer inducements such as extra credit for attendance.

"A student has right to pray," he said. "It's appropriate that's there's a club where they can do that. A government official or government resources can't be used. You can't get on the PA system and say a prayer. It couldn't also be done by an educator in an official capacity. The government cannot promote a religious belief."

With regard to discussion of teacher's religious beliefs, Broadman said educators should take care not to endorse or encourage any faith during school time. If asked questions about their beliefs, teachers should answer the questions objectively, much in the same way they would discuss any other academic topic.

"They have their own private religious rights, but can't as a government official, they can't impose them on someone else. They can't require students to write a report on how awesome John Wesley or Mohamed was," Broadman said.

With regard to the distribution of religious literature on campuses, Broadman said organizations like the Gideons are permitted to distribute Bibles, so long as other religious organizations have the same opportunity. School systems have to accept all or accept none, he said.

"It's OK, but it also means that other people can come," Broadman said. "If Gideons can come and distribute Bibles, the Satanic temple can come and do the same."

Concerning prayers by students at graduation exercises, a court decision in Chandler vs. James, a 1997 federal court case, states that students may make references to their beliefs or thanks to a deity but may not ask an audience to pray with them during the event.

Dana Jonas is the parent of two children who spent most of their school years in the Dothan City Schools over the past decade. Jonas, who is non-religious, said that she felt school officials in the system did not do a good job of providing a barrier between school activities and religion. Jonas said that sponsors of campus religious organizations frequently used class time to encourage students to join these organizations. She also said she felt prayers at PTO meetings were not inclusive of local members of minority faiths. Jonas said when she raised concerns about these issues, her complaints were ignored.

Jonas now lives in Texas, where one of her sons is enrolled in public school. She said nearly a third of the student body at her son's school is more religiously diverse - nearly a third are Muslim - and that school activities are kept strictly secular to avoid conflict.

Ledbetter said that in practice, enforcement of prohibitions against religious activities on school campuses are largely complaint driven.

"It's really a gray area," he said. "A lot of what you can and can't do depends on whether anybody is offended by it. You don't want to have anybody feel that they're forced to have beliefs."


Information from: The Dothan Eagle,

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