The devastating terrorist attacks on 9-11 drove millions of Americans to their knees. Even school children sought solace by reaching out to God through prayer. In one public school bus in Carroll County, Md., young children asked their bus driver, a woman named Stella Tsourakis, to pray with them. She agreed, but when her superiors found out, she was told that she was wrong to do so. To make matters worse, she was told that the kids were not allowed to pray on the bus, and if any of them tried, she was ordered to tell them to get off and walk home!
Just a few years ago, two teen-age girls in Texas were told by their public-school teacher to remove their Ten Commandments book covers, or suffer punishment.
Such blatant anti-Christian bias has no place in the United States of America. It especially has no place in public schools, where kids should be allowed to exercise their religion, rather than suppress it for fear of being punished.
I believe that much of this prejudice has to do with misunderstandings about what the First Amendment actually says about freedom of religion and what the Supreme Court has ruled.
Which is why I was pleased to see that the U.S. Department of Education has released guidelines, based upon the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001,” that require the Secretary of Education to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in elementary and secondary schools. These guidelines clarify what it is that public school students are allowed to do on campus. I would be willing to wager that most Americans would be surprised to learn that:
- Students are allowed to pray together on campus, and during school hours, as long as learning time is not interrupted;
- Students may bring their Bibles to school and read them;
- Students may say grace alone, or with other students during lunch time;
- Students can organize prayer groups, religious clubs, and “see you at the pole” gatherings. These student-led Christian groups must be given the same access to school facilities as non-religious groups;
- Teachers may participate in student-led prayer;
- If a public school has a “minute of silence,” a student is allowed to pray during that time;
- Public schools must release students for parent-approved, off-campus religious instruction;
- Students are allowed to express their Christian faith in homework assignments and have the assignments graded on merit;
- When student speakers are selected, based on neutral criteria, and retain control of the content of the message, they are allowed to engage in religious speech or pray in student assemblies or graduation.
Public schools that do not comply with these regulations stand to lose federal funding.
None of this is to suggest that America is somehow reverting to a theocracy, or that the so-called “wall of separation between church and state” is being broken down. (This “wall,” by the way, is never mentioned in the U.S. Constitution and comes from a private letter from Thomas Jefferson, seeking to reassure Baptists in Danbury, Conn., that no denomination would become the official church of the United States. The First Amendment’s purpose was never to silence Christians or banish God from public life. Its sole purpose was to restrain the federal government from creating a state-supported church.)
These guidelines are simple, common-sense regulations that protect the rights of religious children on public-school campuses. Nothing more, nothing less. They simply make clear that students, in the words of one Supreme Court ruling, do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
We should do everything possible to let the American people know what the U.S. Congress and U.S. Department of Education have stated about what American students are able to do in our public schools.
Or even on a school bus.