"Students aren't allowed to pray any more!" "You can't even talk about God in public schools these days!" "They've even banned Christmas!"
Such refrains, which resound regularly each year, are gross misconceptions perpetuated by alarmists who question America's First Amendment guarantees regarding religion's and prayer's place in public schools.
The approach of major religious holidays is a wonderful opportunity to clarify what is religiously allowable within our public schools. The Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the Constitution ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...") dictates that, while public schools must maintain official postures of neutrality on matters relating to religion, employees may display no hostility toward religion or the religious rights of students and staff.
Does that mean students and staff can pray at school? Absolutely. I've done so many times before critical meetings and events. I've also witnessed students praying privately during mandated moments of silence, as well as publicly before sporting and other competitions. The key is that staff prayer must be private, and any public prayer must be voluntary, nondisruptive and student led.
Are students allowed to publicly share their faith and discuss personally held beliefs at school? Of course they can, as long as they do so in a nondisruptive, nonharassing manner during non-instructional times. When assignments call for student expression of individual ideas, they may certainly express religious beliefs in reports and artwork. They can even read their Bibles during free time.
Can students join together in school prayer? Definitely. Students can gather for nondisruptive devotions during non-instructional time. In addition, if other noncurriculum-related clubs are allowed at school, students can organize their own religious clubs. Students may even share religious tracts with fellow students if they have prior principal approval to ensure that such material is nondisruptive in content and the time, place and manner of its distribution.
How about school staff? Teachers can pray or read their Bibles during their breaks and certainly may pray silently during morning "moments of silence." They can serve as "monitors" of religious clubs but may not actively advise or sponsor them — again, to avoid the appearance of professionally endorsing a specific religion.
Teachers are also allowed to share their faith with other teachers and pass out religious materials in a nonharassing manner to those open to such actions, when not on duty. However, supervisors may not do so with subordinates for the same reason teachers cannot with students.
What about T-shirts with religious messages? If they conform to the student dress code, students can wear anything they wish. However, staff may not wear such attire because it would not constitute dressing "professionally" and would publicly advertise or promote religion.
However, teachers may wear religious necklaces, pins and headgear that are subtler, more private expressions of their personal beliefs. If asked, they can explain to students why they wear religious items or why they might be absent for a religious observance. Teachers may also educate students about religion for its cultural, historical or artistic value. Clearly, the curriculum itself, while not endorsing specific religious beliefs, also serves to reinforce many important character traits and virtues taught by organized faith groups.
However, in educating students about religion, teachers must be careful not to endorse the devotional aspects of any religion or deviate from the curriculum. Why? Because of the law — and people like me, who don't want our children exposed to any teacher's personal brand of religion, especially in a public school classroom.
Regarding the coming holiday season, are students and staff allowed to wish each other "Merry Christmas," "Happy Hanukkah" or offer another holiday greeting? For sure! However, teachers, as professionals, should be sensitive to the beliefs and faiths of students in doing so. Schools may even display Christmas trees and Santas, since they have been considered secular by courts, if officials deem them to have educational value. My elementary school has both displayed.
How about students passing out religious holiday cards to peers and teachers? Also allowable. Even teachers can distribute such cards to peers who will accept them (but, of course, may not with students because this would endorse a religious orientation).
Clearly, God, religion and prayer have not been taken out of America's public schools. Anyone who thinks this is even possible grossly underestimates the presence and power of both. Only school-sponsored prayer and official endorsements of religion(s) are forbidden.
I thank God for this. Given the diversity of faiths and their expressions in America today, I believe our Founding Fathers would too.
Mike McGrew is a school psychologist from Carroll County. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.