The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina’s warning to public schools to keep religion out of the classroom is a scare tactic not based in law, charges a new letter distributed by a team of legal experts on religious freedom.
“While a teacher may not use the classroom to indoctrinate students, a teacher may disseminate information about religion in an objective manner so long as the information is reasonably related to the curriculum,” states a letter from the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The organization, which specializes in defending religious rights, sent the letter to schools in the state in response to a letter from the ACLU demanding that schools report their current practices regarding religion.
ADF called the ACLU letter a “new public school intimidation campaign.”
The ACLU letter said school officials may not incorporate prayer into any school event, plan or promote religious services, hold school events at religious venues when an alternative is available, participate in student religious clubs or cite the Bible.
“The Constitution should be the only permission slip students need to exercise their freedom of religion,” said ADF Legal Counsel Matt Sharp. “The ACLU’s ‘Religious Freedom Goes to School’ campaign paints a restrictive picture of the freedoms for students, teachers and school administrators that the First Amendment protects.
“School districts in South Carolina should be wary of taking advice about religious freedom from an organization that frequently seeks to give that freedom a backseat to their own social and political agenda,” he said.
The ACLU campaign contends schools should base their policies on a legal settlement written by the ACLU in one case. The complaint was filed over religion being promoted in the schools.
The ACLU’s letter demands information from every school about their commencement programs, athletic events, board meeting agendas, awards ceremonies, school event calendars and “any prayers, invocations, benedictions, blessings, proselytizing, or other religious remarks.”
The organization wants the information within 15 days and wants to be given access to copies without charge.
“We are prepared to provide guidance as needed and requested,” the ACLU letter said. “Complaints will receive priority review from attorneys who specialize in religious freedom law. … Litigation will be a last resort.”
But ADF said school districts should have no concerns in permitting students, faculty and staff to exercise their rights.
“Public schools are supposed to serve as institutions of learning where free speech is protected,” said Sharp. “They should not be places of indoctrination that are hostile to religion.”
The ADF letter encouraging schools to defend their rights was signed by David Cortman, senior counsel for ADF, as well as Sharp.
It explains public schools have wide latitude in teaching about the Bible, since the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that “the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.”
“Many subjects cannot be thoroughly taught without some discussion of religion,” the letter said. “For example, in art class, the teacher may overview religious art along with secular art. Sacred texts can be read and studied so long as it is objectively taught along with secular literature. Judges have long acknowledged that ‘music without sacred music, architecture minus the cathedral, or painting without the scriptural themes would be eccentric and incomplete, even from a secular view.
“The ACLU-SC warns that if your school district’s policies do not align with the consent decree that the ACLU negotiated in its lawsuit against a school district … that you should immediately change them. The truth is that the consent decree does not bind any other school district, nor does it accurately represent the current law on the First Amendment rights of students, teachers, and administrators at school.”
The attorneys noted the ACLU previously “opposed [a] church’s use of public school facilities that were open for use by other community groups,” putting it in a “poor position to advise you of the rights of religious liberty.”
The ACLU letter, signed by Victoria Middleton, also got other things wrong, ADF said.
“Religious clubs must be given equal access to all school facilities, resources, and equipment that are available to other non-curriculum related clubs. … Religious clubs are even permitted to invite community members (including local pastors and religious leaders) to speak at club meetings if other clubs are permitted to do so.”
Students and faculty both are allowed to take part in events such as the National Day of Prayer, the group said.
“Religious groups are permitted to distribute Bibles, religious literature, and even set up displays at school if the school permits other community organizations to do so,” ADF said.
At ceremonies and graduations, prayer is allowed if it is student-led, and teachers even may explain the reason Christians celebrate Easter “in an objective and educational manner.”
“We hope our letter clarifies the true extent of the First Amendment freedoms of students and schools,” said Sharp. “Public schools are supposed to serve as institutions of learning where free speech is protected. They should not be places of indoctrination that are hostile to religion.”