A Tale Of Two School Districts: How To Deal With Religion In Public Education

Public schools have no business meddling in the private religious lives of students.

Every September, we brace ourselves here at Americans United because we know the new school year will spark a fresh round of squabbles about the proper role of religion in public education.

Indeed, we're seeing some already. Two recent stories – one from Kentucky and one from Iowa – showcase two very different ways of dealing with this contentious topic.

In Breckinridge County, Ky., parent Michelle Ammons is angry because a football coach took 20 players to a revival meeting where a number of them were baptized, without parental permission. Ammons' son was among them.

Ammons says Coach Scott Mooney of Breckinridge County High School told the players the event would include a steak dinner and a motivational speech. Instead, the players were taken to Mooney's church, Franklin Crossroads Baptist Church, for an evangelistic pitch.

Superintendent Janet Meeks says it's no big deal. Meeks, who is a member of Franklin Crossroads Baptist, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that even though a school bus was used, attendance was voluntary and another coach paid for the gas.

"None of the players were rewarded for going and none were punished for not going," Meeks said.

In Spenser, Iowa, school officials have stepped away from a problematic religion-in-schools policy that AU had warned was unconstitutional.

Among other things, the policy called for the creation of a Bible course using material from the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a Religious Right outfit in North Carolina; creation of a course that studies the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution; allowing students to vote on prayers at graduation and permitting teachers to talk to students about faith if the student asks.

AU wrote to school officials July 16 and asked them to reject this flawed policy. They have done so and cited AU's letter as one of the reasons they reconsidered.

The Spenser Daily Reporter noted recently that the board went back to the drawing board and has come up with a new policy, which is being circulated among teachers, students and parents. AU is hopeful that the new policy will steer clear of constitutional landmines.

The bottom line here is that public schools have no business meddling in the private religious lives of students. Decisions about where, how, if and when to worship belong at home with the parents, who are free to consult with the religious leaders of their choice.

I don't blame Michelle Ammons for being angry. She rightly believes that she and her husband can oversee the religious life of their son. No school official should be interfering in that relationship. (As an aside, imagine the uproar that would have erupted in Breckenridge County had the coach taken the players to a mosque where they were pressured to adopt Islam.) Breckenridge officials need to take a page from Spenser and get better policies in place. The road they are on now will undoubtedly lead to lawsuits.

This school year, I'm hoping educators, coaches, principals and superintendents all over America realize the limits of their jobs. They need to stay focused on teaching, not preaching.