Editor’s Note: This week “The Wall of Separation” is concluding its series recounting the top 10 church-state stories from 2022. Today’s post recaps AU’s efforts this year to protect the religious freedom of public school students.
When the Supreme Court ruled that Bremerton School District in Washington State was wrong to stop a high school football coach from leading coercive prayers with players on the 50-yard line after football games, Americans United called the decision “the greatest loss of religious freedom in our country in generations” and promised to continue doing all we can to protect the religious freedom of public school students.
“Those who seek to undermine our religious freedoms won’t back down and neither will we,” said AU President and CEO Rachel Laser during a press conference that day. “We cannot let this decision deter us. We must work together to save our public schools and hold back this tide of religious extremism from encroaching on everyone’s rights. Make no mistake, after 75 years we are in the fight of our lives. The work Americans United is doing matters more than ever before. And we will never give up. And if our democracy is to survive, we must prevail.”
AU followed through on that promise in a number of ways:
“Know Your Rights” Guides For Public School Students, Parents And Teachers
Before the summer was over and school began this fall, we’d updated and distributed our “Know Your Rights” guides to ensure parents and students know their religious freedom rights in public schools. A separate guide for educators outlines the responsibilities of public school teachers, as well as their own rights to religious freedom while on the job.
“Religious extremists feel emboldened to treat our public schools as mission fields,” AU’s Andrew Seidel said in an email to members, encouraging them to share the guides. “But we need to make clear that students still have extensive religious freedom rights in public schools—and we’ll fight to protect them.”
Seidel noted that the Kennedy v. Bremerton case didn’t change decades of established law that prevents government employees from pressuring students to pray in public schools, or other key cases relating to religion in public schools. It’s still the law of the land that public schools can’t coerce students, have official prayers at school events, teach creationism or other religious doctrines, or display religious iconography or messages on school property.
Reviewing And Addressing Religious Freedom Violations
We encourage any students and families who believe their religious freedom has been violated in public schools or in their communities to report those violations to us so our attorneys can review them. You can report complaints to us on this simple form on our website.
AU reviews hundreds of complaints every year, the majority of them relating to violations at public schools. While much of this work happens behind the scenes so that we can seek quick resolutions out of court and protect our clients, some of our work on behalf of public school families becomes public – such as our letter demanding a Louisiana school district stop including religious content in school programs and events after high school students and their parents reported they were deceived into attending a school-sponsored, faith-based program at a church under the guise of it being a “college and career fair.” Or our investigation into a Tennessee school district’s Bible classes after a Jewish family reported antisemitic and proselytizing content.
Fighting For The Freedom To Learn
From book bans to state laws aimed at suppressing LGBTQ-inclusive content and instruction on the history of racism in America, Christian nationalists and other extremists are trying to inject religion into public schools and force everyone to live by their narrow beliefs.
AU launched an investigation into new Florida educational standards that reportedly promote white Christian Nationalism, downplay the importance of church-state separation and whitewash our nation’s history. Throughout the year, we also reported on and condemned many efforts to ban books and limit students’ ability to access information, including joining our allies during Banned Books Week in September to declare that extremists should not dictate what books other people’s children are allowed to read.
Just as we have for 75 years, AU remains committed to protecting secular, inclusive public schools that welcome all students, regardless of their religious beliefs. You can join us at www.au.org/donate/become-a-member/.