Wilson County, Tenn., and Marin County, Calif., are about as different as any two places in America can be. But this month school officials in both communities appear equally confused about what constitutes “state-sponsored religion” in the public schools.
In the Bible Belt, not surprisingly, the religion at issue is the majority faith. And on the Left Coast, not surprisingly, the conflict is over Transcendental Meditation, a practice developed by the Indian spiritual teacher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Here we are more than 40 years after the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment prohibits state-sponsored religion in public schools – and many school officials still don’t know (or don’t want to know) what constitutes state-sponsored religion.
According to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on Sept. 27, the Wilson County School System regularly promotes religious activities in one of its elementary schools. A group called “Praying Parents,” for example, is featured on the school’s Web site and is allegedly given access to the kids during the school day.
In Marin County, meanwhile, a group of parents objected to plans for a school-sponsored Transcendental Meditation club for students and faculty at a local high school, charging that it would constitute school endorsement of religion. The school was slated to receive funding for the TM club from a foundation created by filmmaker David Lynch.
After parents complained (and the conservative Pacific Justice Institute threatened to sue), the foundation withdrew funding and plans for the TM club were canceled.
Although Praying Parents may have little in common with TM practitioners, the involvement of school officials in both illustrates a widespread misunderstanding of the constitutionally permissible role of religion in public schools.
Parents are free to pray for the school; they can even meet in the school building during non-school hours on the same basis as other community groups. And kids are free to start meditation clubs in high school if the school has other extracurricular clubs. But under the First Amendment, administrators and teachers may not endorse or promote either activity.
As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has explained, “there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect” (Westside Community Bd. of Ed. v. Mergens, 1990).
Apparently, Justice O’Connor’s distinction is lost on many people in Wilson County. As soon as the lawsuit was filed, a local city commission issued a press release castigating the ACLU for trying to “banish Christianity from the public schools.” According to the commissioners, the issue is the “free exercise rights of students,” not school promotion of religion.
But the family represented by the ACLU isn’t objecting to Praying Parents, Prayer at the Flagpole or the National Day of Prayer (all mentioned in the lawsuit); they object to school sponsorship, endorsement and promotion of these. That’s the “crucial difference” the First Amendment requires public schools to uphold.
Contrary to popular misconception, the ACLU actually defends religious kids when their free-exercise rights are denied by a public school. Last year, for example, the ACLU weighed in on behalf of a second-grade student in New Jersey who was told that she couldn’t sing a religious song at her school’s talent show.
Out in Marin County, you probably won’t find many public schools promoting Praying Parents. But you will find great interest in alternative forms of spirituality.
Proponents of TM in schools argue that TM is not a religion. Although a federal appeals court ruled in 1979 that teaching TM in public schools is unconstitutional, TM backers claim that the religious elements in that case aren’t part of the TM program now being promoted in schools.
But even if a court were to rule someday that TM is not a religion, that wouldn’t satisfy many Christian parents who will want to know why school officials can meditate, but not pray, with students. School officials should be careful not to use a double standard by promoting some brands of “spirituality” while excluding Christian practices.
Nothing is unconstitutional about kids praying around a flagpole or meditating at a club meeting. Nothing is unconstitutional about parents praying before or after school. But when school officials sponsor or promote these activities, they violate the trust we place in them to uphold religious freedom for students and parents of all faiths and none.
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.