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Back to Sept. Ed Reporter

Education Reporter

THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS SEPTEMBER 1995
FOCUS:
Respecting the First Amendment in Virginia Public Schools
by Cheri Pierson Yecke

In a first grade classroom in Stafford County, children were encouraged to bring their favorite books from home for free reading time. But when little Adam Waldowski, quietly and alone, began to read his Bible, he was told by his teacher that he wasn't allowed to do so.

The Hampton district exempts students from exams based on the students' earning good grades and having a minimum number of absences. However, Shulamit Warren and other Jewish students, no matter how high their grades, cannot take advantage of this policy. Several of their religious holy days occur during the school year, and they do not have these absences excused.

In Fulks Run, 4th grader Leslie Combs was "discouraged" from delivering an oral report on the old Testament Book of Esther. Soon afterward, she was told that she could no longer wear a T-shirt to school after she stated out loud, in response to another student's question, that the initials "J.C." on it stood for Jesus Christ.

Other than the fact that they all occurred in Virginia, what do these incidents have in common? A misunderstanding of the place of religious expression in the public schools.

Virginia has taken the lead in protecting these First Amendment rights. In order to provide guidance for localities, on June 22 the State Board of Education adopted a set of guidelines to assist localities in the interpretation of "constitutional rights and restrictions relating to religious expression in our public schools."

These guidelines were developed over many months by the Board in conjunction with Attorney General Jim Gilmore's office and the Allen administration's Department of Education. Input was received from both the public and a diverse spectrum of interest groups, including the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, the Virginia School Boards Association, the Rutherford Institute, the Virginia Coalition for Religious Freedom, the ACLU, the American Center for Law and Justice, the Christian Legal Society, the Family Foundation, and the National Legal Foundation.

Public comment indicates that there was a high degree of consensus among the interest groups on many of the issues, and this is reflected in the positive tone of the guidelines: they delineate what is permissible, not what is forbidden. In addition, the guidelines emphasize that the document is not intended to displace local policy or procedure, but is rather a reference tool to guide educators as they walk the fine line of protecting freedom of speech and religious expression while avoiding the appearance of officially sanctioning or promoting any particular religious group.

Following Virginia's lead, President Clinton announced on July 12 that he was instructing Attorney General Janet Reno and Education Secretary Richard Riley to draft similar guidelines for the entire nation. He spoke at a school in Vienna, saying that he wanted to make the announcement in Virginia, where "the oldest and deepest roots of religious liberty can be found."

Although many Americans believe that the Constitution contains the phrase "a wall of separation between church and state," the fact is this phrase is not there. It was the sharply divided 1947 Supreme Court ruling in Everson v. Board of Education that popularized this interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: "In the words of Jefferson, the clause against the establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a 'wall of separation between Church and State.'"

But as historians well know, Jefferson's 1803 reference to the "wall of separation" has been taken out of context. The expulsion of religion from public schools and the public square was clearly not intended. Jefferson himself supported government funding for religious instruction for the Kakaskia Indians, and as president of the school board for Washington, D.C. he made the Bible one of the official textbooks.

Not surprisingly, there is rampant confusion over the issue of religious expression in the public schools, as too often courts rule along the lines of "Do as we say, not as we do." For example, in the 1980 case of Stone v. Graham the court cited the "wall of separation" in prohibiting the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools: "If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate or obey the Commandments. . . . This . . . is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause." Yet these same Ten Commandments are chiseled in stone on the very walls of the Supreme Court chambers.

Is it any wonder that citizens are confused about what is appropriate religious expression in the schools? Parents have often turned to the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville for advice and, if necessary, legal representation. In addition to providing assistance in the Virginia cases cited earlier, Rutherford has a worldwide network, and is the organization that came to the aid of 10-year-old Raymond Raines of St. Louis, MO who was put into detention for a week for silently bowing his head to say grace before lunch at school.

Ron Rissler of the Rutherford Institute states that school personnel usually respond favorably to the institution's input "when they realize their actions are the result of misinformation or misunderstanding of the Constitution."

In addition to the First Amendment, the new Virginia guidelines rely heavily on numerous court decisions, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and the Equal Access Act. Topics addressed include holidays, student assignments, and graduation prayer.

Virginia led the nation's commitment to religious liberty in the 18th century with George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 and the passage of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty in 1786. It seems fitting that Virginia has again taken the initiative to assume the cloak of leadership as our country prepares to enter the 21st century.

Under the Virginia guidelines, Adam can read his Bible, Shulamit and the Jewish students in Hampton may have their religious-based absences excused, Leslie can wear her T-shirt and give her report -- and school personnel can rest assured that they are acting within the law.

Future court rulings may provide some more specific guidance and different historical interpretations some day, which will do much to clarify the real intentions of the Founding Fathers. Until that time, and thanks to the input and cooperation of many religiously diverse and politically divergent interests, the "Guidelines Concerning Religious Activity in the Public Schools" provide guidance necessary to ensure that the constitutional rights of school children in Virginia, and hopefully soon the entire nation, will be preserved, and that the court-ruled secular position of public education will be respected.

Cheri Pierson Yecke is a member of the Virginia State Board of Education, and was the 1988 Teacher of the Year in Stafford County.

 
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