Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Every public school in America is about to receive a wake-up call that will eliminate any excuse for stomping on students’ and teachers’ religious liberty.
Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” activists of various stripes – most recently from atheist and homosexual groups – have tried to find ways around the ruling, to squash free speech, and religious speech in particular, in America’s public schools.
Last year, for example, Florida teacher Jerry Buell at Mount Dora High School faced suspension after the homosexual advocacy group Equality Florida demanded he be disciplined for voicing disapproval of same-sex marriage on Facebook.
Though Buell used his personal computer, on his personal time to post his opinion on his personal Facebook page, he lost three days in the classroom to suspension before the Lake County School Board realized its mistake and decided to exonerate and reinstate the teacher.
Just this month, Missouri State Rep. Mike McGhee explained to the Missourian that the state’s newly passed “right to pray” constitutional amendment was needed because he heard about children who were asked not to pray after getting a school lunch, a girl being told not to take her Bible to study hall and a parent explaining how an adult at her child’s school told her son to change the words in the song “Jesus Loves Me” to “My Mom Loves Me” while he was on the school playground.
Though voters passed the “right to pray” amendment by a roughly 5-to-1 margin, standing against it was the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
But now Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, has announced it is sending 99,750 copies – one for literally every public school in America – of an exhaustive guide on religious liberty in school to principals, vice principals and school administrators around the country. Thousands of sponsors have made the mass mailing possible.
“Over the past few years, Liberty Counsel has seen a surge of complaints from school administrators, educators and students, whose rights were egregiously violated,” said the organization in a statement. “Secular activists attempt to remove religious expression from our public schools, indoctrinate students in alternative lifestyles and bully through intimidation and blatant misrepresentation. To be proactive in countering this growing threat, Liberty Counsel developed and distributed the ‘Patriot’s Handbook of Religious Freedom in Public Schools.’
“This booklet,” the organization explains, “clarifies the rights of students to pray, form Bible clubs and engage in religious expression in public schools, including holiday celebrations and the rights of teachers, parents and guardians.”
“The public school is not a faith-free zone,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “Students need not leave their spiritual beliefs on the schoolhouse steps. Liberty Counsel is here to educate and, if need be, litigate to defend their First Amendment rights.”
America’s public school system, which had long included religious elements such as daily prayer and even biblical passages and stories as part of the common primers from which many of our nation’s presidents learned to read, faced a significant crisis of faith in 1962 and 1963 when a pair of landmark Supreme Court cases first found unconstitutional state-sponsored prayer in schools, then struck down Bible readings and other state-sponsored religious activities.
But in 1969, the Supreme Court’s Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case reaffirmed the rights of the individual students and teachers, concluding, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. This has been the unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years.”
Though the case was originally about three students wearing arm bands to protest the Vietnam War, many cases since have pointed to the 1969 decision and the “Tinker test” to affirm a right to religious expression as well.
Nonetheless, Liberty Counsel notes, several questions, controversies and even lawsuits over free speech and religious liberty in public schools pop up every year, including questions about students, teachers, curriculum, graduation ceremonies, public access to school facilities by religious groups and more.
“That’s why Liberty Counsel has developed an invaluable resource compiled through decades of experience defending the rights of educators, students, administrators and community members from radical activists who want to suppress our precious freedom of religious expression in public settings,” the organization states.
Liberty Counsel’s goal in distributing the “Patriot’s Handbook of Religious Freedom in Public Schools” is to dramatically reduce the number of instances when school administrators erroneously censor or punish religious expression. By having the guidebook in hand or on file, the organization hopes, schools will look to sound advice on protecting religious liberty when confronted by activist organizations that demand students, teachers or community groups be silenced.
“Our nation’s public schools must allow the full and free exercise of every American’s First Amendment rights to free speech, free association and religious expression,” Liberty Counsel states. “There must never be restraints or prohibitions on any American expressing religious sentiments in public settings. There is no place in our democracy for anti-religious bigotry.”