An Oregon rancher who President Donald J. Trump pardoned recently has said his new goal is to put religion back in public schools.
Dwight Hammond Jr. was convicted in 2012 of committing arson on federal land. Hammond and his son had been illegally shooting deer on federal land and set the fire to cover up their actions. Government prosecutors said 139 acres of public land were destroyed. A jury found both men guilty, but Trump’s pardon removes those convictions.
Nevertheless, this is probably not the kind of man you’d want to teach your kids about morals.
“As I said for a long time, this is not about me. This is not about our industry. It's about America and it's about our youth,” he told Oregonian. “We don’t stand a snowball’s chance on a slow roll through hell of getting out of this situation until we are willing to let God lead us.”
First, it’s not “about America” because America protects the religious freedom of all public school students, including non-religious students, thanks to church-state separation. Second, whatever “situation” he’s talking about seems to be stemming out of panic, since, according to Pew Research, America is getting more secular.
Americans United has noted many times that students in public schools have the right to engage in voluntary prayer but cannot be compelled to take part in religious exercises.
Parents should feel comfortable sending their children to public schools and not fear that they will be preached to or forced to pray according to someone else’s faith tradition. Students may engage in truly voluntary prayer, may read the Bible in a non-disruptive way and may form religious clubs that meet after school, but it has to be their choice. They can also talk to fellow students about religion, so long as it isn’t harassing. But public schools may not pressure students to engage in prayer or other religious activities.
As AU’s Director of Communications Rob Boston wrote previously, students can also “read religious (or non-religious) books such as the Bible, the Quran, the Upanishads, the Book of Mormon, Buddhist meditations, a tome by Richard Dawkins, etc. during any free time they may have [and] a federal law called the Equal Access Act allows students at secondary schools to form religious and non-religious clubs that meet during non-instructional time. These clubs are student run and entirely voluntary, and those who chose to join can pray, read religious texts, share personal testimony and so on.”
So given this broad scope of voluntary freedoms, there’s no need for Hammond to crusade for coerced public school prayer and religion in classroom instruction.
The separation of church and state ensures that your taxpayer money funds secular education, not religious education. No one should be forced to fund a religious education regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the content that’s taught. Public schools are for everyone, not just religious – specifically Christian – students.
You can help us play a role in continuing to protect public school students. If you believe a violation of separation of church and state is occurring in your public school, please let us know by reporting the violation, and our legal team will review it.