WASHINGTON Schools that don’t allow students to pray outside the classroom or that prohibit teachers from holding religious meetings among themselves could lose federal money, the Education Department said late last week.
The guidance reflects the Bush administration’s push to ensure that schools give teachers and students as much freedom to pray as the courts have allowed.
The department makes clear that teachers cannot pray with students or attempt to shape their religious views.
“Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families,” Education Secretary Rod Paige said. “At the same time, school officials may not compel students to participate in prayer or other activities.”
The instructions, released by the department on Feb. 7, broadly follow the same direction given by the Clinton administration and the courts. Prayer is generally allowed provided it happens outside the class and is initiated by students, not by school officials.
The department, however, also offered some significant additions, including more details on such contentious matters as moments of silence and prayer in student assemblies. And for the first time, federal funds are tied to compliance with the guidelines. The burden is on schools to prove compliance through a yearly report.
“Public school districts that accept billions of dollars each year in federal education funds should be expected to respect students’ constitutional rights,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. “This is basic common sense.”
“Even after repeated dissemination of guidelines, far too many school administrators still ignore their obligation to protect the religious-liberty rights of students,” said Charles Haynes, the First Amendment Center’s senior scholar. “Linking the guidelines to funding is a wake-up call that may finally push all schools to take the First Amendment seriously.”
Bush and Congress ordered the department to release the new guidelines as part of an education overhaul signed into law last year. But one leading critic said what emerged is a partisan push for more school prayer, not an attempt at clarification.
“The Bush administration is clearly trying to push the envelope on behalf of prayer in public schools,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Administration lawyers have selectively read case law to come to the conclusions they wanted, and school administrators should be aware of that.
“They took the Clinton-era regulations, which just stated what the law was, and turned them into a wish list of what this administration wants them to be,” Lynn said.
In one significant change, teachers are permitted to meet with each other for “prayer or Bible study” before school or after lunch provided they make clear they are not acting in their “official capacities.”
Also, students taking part in assemblies and graduation may not be restricted in expressing religion as long as they were chosen as speakers through “neutral, evenhanded criteria.” To avoid controversy, schools may issue disclaimers clarifying that such speech does not represent the school.
Such school gatherings have been at the heart of recent court rulings. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that prayers led by students at high school football games are unconstitutional. Yet in 2001, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case involving protests over student-led graduation prayers.
“I’m very excited about the clarity, and very optimistic that these guidelines will go a long way in solving issues related to students’ religious speech,” said Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, which promotes religious expression. “We will use these actively in dealing with schools, and we’ll use them in cases we’re litigating as well.”
Countered Lynn: “If some student decides to turn a school assembly into a church service, that school will be sued. This doesn’t insulate schools from lawsuits. It stretches to the breaking point what the courts have said on the topic.”
The guidelines say students may “read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour or other non-instructional time.” Schools may impose some rules about those activities but cannot discriminate against prayer or religious speech in doing so.
If schools have planned moments of silence, students may pray or not pray, and teachers may not encourage or discourage praying, the guidelines say. Religion-themed homework or artwork must be graded on an academic basis, not favored or penalized because of its content.
The guidelines do a better job of spelling out what’s allowed in many cases, but in others, they may just cause more confusion, said Reggie Felton, lobbyist for the National School Boards Association. Giving teachers discretion to openly pray during breaks may cause problems, especially if it is not clear they are doing it outside their official roles, he said.
“I’m not suggesting that these are horrible guidelines,” Felton said. “I’m just saying there are areas that will require more discussions with attorneys.”