Seems the U.S. Education Department sent the following Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools to school administrators around the country on February 7th along with a threat that any schools not complying with these guidelines would risk losing it’s federal funding. Somehow this small bit of news escaped my attention the first time around.
It didn’t escape the attention of the folks at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, though, as they have just put out a press release warning of the guideline’s inaccuracies. AU says the guidance is flawed in four key areas:
- The guidance states that “student-initiated” prayer is legal at graduation and other school events. In fact, the Supreme Court struck down “student-initiated” prayers before football games in 2002, and two lower federal courts have done the same. Only one federal appeals court has upheld such prayers.
- The guidance says that students have a legal right to incorporate religious themes in their class work and read to fellow students from religious texts. No court has ever granted students this right. In fact, several courts have said the opposite—that teachers have the right to protect other students from proselytization efforts disguised as classroom assignments.
- The guidance asserts that public school teachers have the right to participate in religious activities on school grounds in some cases. The courts have consistently banned teacher participation in prayers with students, and courts are mixed on whether teachers can meet to pray with each other on school grounds in an unofficial capacity.
- The guidance threatens loss of funding for schools that fail to comply with the Education Department’s decree. In fact, there is no language in the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” that authorizes the federal government to take such a draconian step.
This puts school administrators if a very awkward position. If they follow the guidelines they risk being sued in court and if they ignore the guidelines they risk possibly losing their federal funding. It sure is a shitty time to be involved in public education. It’s bad enough that they’re already expected to be just this side of a surrogate parent, now they have to deal with the U.S. Education Department trying to override the Judicial Branch in injecting religion back into the schools.
Talk about damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Americans United does point out those things in the guidelines that are accurate in a more detailed analysis they’ve made available online so that schools can at least make an attempt at partial compliance.
While I have said for a long time that school administrators would benefit greatly from a little education in what is and isn’t allowed to happen in school religion-wise (and there’s plenty of things that are perfectly OK) it doesn’t do any good if the guidelines themselves are wrong about several of the issues they’re supposed to be clarifying. To further compound the problem by threatening to remove funding from schools that don’t comply this now looks less like an honest, if flawed, attempt to educate administrators and more like an attempt to override the court’s previous decisions. The Bush administration seems to be under the impression that anything it can’t get passed as a law it can enact by decree instead.