Re-enacting religious events invites trouble
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

When a fourth-grade class in California held a "Court of Honor" recently, some administrators weren't sure if the activity belonged in a public school.

The Court of Honor — an adaptation of a Native American practice — was intended to recognize the students' transition from childhood to the "age of responsibility." During the ceremony, an elder (parent, uncle, aunt or other adult significant in the child's life) presented a medallion to the student.

The ceremony was part of a longer program in which the students, divided into tribal groups, presented what they had learned about the various Native American tribes they had studied.

Should the school have allowed the Court of Honor, or does this cross some constitutional line?

Obviously, schools can't involve students in religious practices. But if the ceremony is a "reenactment" — or adaptation — of the Native American practice, is it permissible in a public school? Is it constitutional?

Risky business
There's no court ruling that directly addresses reenactments or adaptations of religious ceremonies in a public-school classroom. But in my view, assigning students to participate in a religious practice, even by way of role-playing, risks violating both the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

The establishment-clause problem might arise because role-plays that are based on devotional or sacred practices put the teacher in the position of promoting or denigrating religion. In this case, objecting parents could argue that rites of passage are sacred moments in Native American traditions (as they are in other religions and cultures).

Reenactments could also trigger a free-exercise claim. Many parents don't want their children participating in a religious activity not their own, even if the activity is a role-play that isn't intended to be devotional. Some teachers try to avoid this problem by asking for volunteers. But not all students are aware of what might or might not violate the wishes of their parents.

At first glance, an adaptation such as the Court of Honor seems harmless enough; it is probably a close call on both establishment and free-exercise grounds. Such a practice may be far enough removed from explicitly religious content so that it neither promotes religion nor violates the conscience of students.

But I'm still uneasy about it. If, for example, the Court of Honor were modeled on a Bar Mitzvah ceremony or a Christian confirmation ritual, I doubt that the school would allow it. The fact that it comes from Native American tribes (where religious and cultural practices are often inseparable) may make it seem less "religious" to outsiders. But to Native Americans the ceremony remains sacred.

Questionable effects
Even if the First Amendment objections could be overcome, are role-plays of religious ceremonies a good way to teach about religions and cultures?

It's hard to say "no" to this proposition, since role-playing is such a powerful and effective teaching tool. What student soon forgets reenacting a key moment in history, a pivotal court case or a scene from a great play?

But no matter how carefully planned or well-intentioned, the reenactment of a sacred practice risks distorting the meaning of the faith involved. For instance, does pretending to sit in meditation like a Buddhist monk — as one teacher required — really qualify as a learning experience about Buddhism? Or does it trivialize a practice considered sacred to millions of Buddhists? Unlike a court trial or a political debate, religious ceremonies are sacred moments that are difficult, if not impossible, to role-play without stripping them of all meaning.

But what if a teacher gets the green light from a member of the clergy or from a tribal chief? Does that solve some of these problems? Let's assume, for example, that a local rabbi has no objection to public-school kids role-playing the Seder meal during Passover (a practice I've seen in a number of classrooms). Does that make the activity acceptable in the eyes of the faithful?

I don't think so. A religious leader or a member of a tribe doesn't speak for an entire community. Although some groups may object less than others to ceremonial role-playing, the general principle remains the same: Re-creating sacred moments risks trivializing and misrepresenting the tradition involved.

I hesitate to discourage those creative teachers who work hard to make learning exciting and immediate for their students. But the constitutional and educational problems are sufficient to recommend against adapting sacred practices or role-playing religious ceremonies.

Rituals and ceremonies indigenous to various religions and cultures can be presented through audiovisual materials or described by a guest speaker. This approach protects the integrity of the religions being studied and safeguards the consciences of both students and parents.