Saturday, May 7, 2011

Charles C. Haynes: Memo to Sumner County: Local schools aren’t local churches

  If only a fraction of the allegations are true, public school officials in Sumner County, Tenn., are treating their school district like a missionary field for the Christian faith.

  Nine students — who understandably wish to remain anonymous — have filed suit with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to end school promotion of religion. The laundry list of allegations reads like a description of public schools in the Deep South of the 1950s with everything from prayers over the PA system to teacher-led Bible study.

  Everyone from school board members to classroom teachers appear to be willfully ignoring a long line of rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court striking down school-sponsored religious practices in public schools.

  Some of the constitutional violations alleged in the complaint include teachers participating in student religious club meetings, a youth pastor evangelizing students during lunch, the Gideon’s handing out Bibles to kids, and various school events being held at the local church.

  The local schools, in short, are extensions of the local churches (of the Bible-believing Protestant variety). Of course, this is popular in Sumner County only because the religion being promoted in the schools is the “right” religion. Transport many of these parents to rural Utah and they would suddenly see the wisdom of separating church from school.

  If the community concern is to make sure God is allowed in schools, official “neutrality” toward religion under the First Amendment can be maintained without excluding religion from the public schools.

  Under current law, students are free to pray alone or in groups (as long as they don’t disrupt the school), form religious clubs at the high school, distribute religious literature to fellow students, express their religious views in class if it’s relevant to the discussion, and, in various other ways, express their faith during the school day.

  What Sumner County can’t do is allow their schools to violate the First Amendment by imposing religion on the kids. When administrators or teachers feel the urge to share the Good News during the school day, they need to take a deep breath and remember where they are and what they signed up to do. Teach the 3Rs and save the preaching for Sunday morning.

  About the author: Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web:

  This article was published by the First Amendment Center.

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