May 2014 Church & State | Editorial

Controversy erupted in Dearborn, Mich., last month after three public elementary schools distributed flyers to students inviting them to an Easter egg hunt at a local Presbyterian church. Dearborn has a large Muslim population, and a parent raised objections.

The matter ended up in the media, and it wasn’t long before right-wing outlets were inflaming the situation. The fact that a Muslim had complained led to a round of “war on Easter” stories – as well as some unfortunate anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The church in question described the event as a community gathering that was open to all. That may indeed have been the case. The church does not appear to be fundamentalist in nature, and it might never have intended to proselytize during the event.

But that doesn’t excuse what the schools did. Public schools have no obligation to promote events sponsored by houses of worship. In this case, the church should have used private channels to publicize the event.

Here’s the problem: Once a precedent has been established for this sort of flyer distribution, other religious groups can’t be excluded. The next church that approaches these schools and demands flyers be sent home may not be so benign. That church may have the goal of evangelizing young children and seek to use the public schools as a vehicle.

Similar situations have occurred with the distribution of Bibles in public schools. Some schools have allowed the Gideons or other evangelistic groups to make Bibles available to students – only to learn that other groups must then be given the same right of access.

In Casey County, Tenn., recently, several public elementary schools allowed the Gideons to leave copies of Bibles in the schools for students to take. In response, a local humanist group sought the right to make available copies of a book titled Humanism, What’s That?: A Book for Curious Kids. School officials had no choice but to comply.

Here’s a better solution: Stick to studying religion as an academic subject in public schools. Allow parents to decide what religious tomes, if any, they wish to give to their children. Parents can do this at home or in conjunction with the house or worship of their choice.

Our public schools have enough on their plates without becoming battlegrounds for competing religious and secular points of view. The schools should stay neutral on theology, and houses of worship should not look to them for free publicity.