September 2012 Church & State | Editorial

Millions of young people are returning to public schools right now, and some of them are going to confront inappropriate attempts by school officials to promote religion.

Over the years, Religious Right groups and their political allies have become more sophisticated in their maneuvers to slip their theology into the classroom. This means that advocates of church-state separation must become savvier as well.

In Florida, for example, legislators knew better than to pass yet another school prayer bill that the courts would strike down. Instead, they passed a measure that allows students to give “inspirational messages” before school events. Of course, some lawmakers openly stated that their hope is that many of these messages will be prayers.

In Louisiana, legislators passed a law allowing schools to use “supplemental” materials that “analyze, critique and review” certain subjects, one of which just happens to be evolution.

Arizona legislators, meanwhile, passed a bill allowing classes “about” the Bible in schools.

Americans United’s challenge is to closely monitor each piece of legislation and how it is implemented. If we uncover evidence of church-state violations, we can represent local plaintiffs in court.

But it may not be necessary to go that far. In Florida, the new “inspirational messages” law allows local districts to adopt a policy permitting such statements. It does not require them to do it.

As soon as the measure became law, AU sent an advisory to every school district in the state: If you implement this policy and impose religion on students, you will be sued. Chances are you will lose and end up squandering precious taxpayer dollars.

This simple statement of fact seems to be working. So far, we’re not aware of any school districts that have adopted a problematic policy.

But we must remain vigilant. Public schools in America are more diverse now than ever. Ninety percent of our nation’s young people attend public schools, and they’re drawn from every conceivable religious and non-religious background. Despite their differences, these youngsters are educated by the public school system, which passes along the shared values of what it means to be an American.

That’s quite an accomplishment, and it’s one most Americans are proud of. But to the Religious Right, our public school system is something else. They see it as a mission field, a place to do proselytizing.  In short, they want to “Christianize” the schools with a dose of that old-time fundamentalism.

This misguided agenda can be foiled, and our public schools can be kept welcoming to children of all faiths and none – but only as long as defenders of church-state separation remain alert.