UPDATE: Folks, I closed comments on this at 10 p.m. Friday. Have a great holiday weekend. Maureen
A common plaint on this blog is that religion has been banished from our public schools. The usual comment is that we have kicked God out of the schools.
But some argue that not all religions are met with hostility in the classroom, only those far outside the mainstream.
That complaint was made this month via an Internet campaign on behalf of a pagan family in Carroll County. Stephanie Turner said her 11-year-old son was singled out and punished after he took off the neopagan holiday of Samhain. Once the boy returned to class, his teacher allegedly questioned him and said, “Paganism is not a religion.” Then, the teacher assigned a class essay on “How Christmas started,” according to the complaint.
I exchanged e-mails with Turner seeking information about her son’s experience, but then received a call from Selena Fox, founder and executive director of the Lady Liberty League, an organization that advocates for religious freedom for Wiccans, Neopagans and other nature religion practitioners.
A Wisconsin resident, Fox explained to me in our telephone conversation that she was calling on Turner’s behalf to let me know that they were attempting to meet with the school district. In the meantime, websites and pagan organizations that took up the Turner family cause urged people to send e-mails of protest to the Carroll school chief, principal and teacher. And apparently they did.
When I contacted Carroll County two weeks ago, spokeswoman Elena Schulenburg told me: We are currently working with the parent to review this matter. The e-mail was circulated over the weekend ahead of our opportunity to meet with the parent to discuss any concerns. As always, our focus is on the safety and welfare of all students.
Accompanied by four advocates including an attorney, Turner met with Carroll school officials on Dec. 12. She and her advocates issued a statement later on the outcome of that meeting: First, a sincere apology for recent events and misunderstandings has been given by school administration and accepted by the family. Second, the Bowdon Elementary School guidance counselor will educate staff and students about honoring and accepting the differences that make us individuals. Third, procedures have been put in place to ensure classroom activities don’t alienate students.
In a Dec. 13 radio interview on Pagan Warrior Radio hosted by Selena Fox, Turner thanked the national pagan community for its support, saying, “It has helped my son so much knowing that he is not alone.”
The New York Times has a good piece about the encroachment of religion in public schools. Several of the examples of proselytizing occurred in Southern schools.
At a school assembly here in South Carolina on Sept. 1, a preacher described how Christ saved him from drugs, telling his rapt audience that “a relationship with Jesus is what you need more than anything else.” A rapper shouted the Lord’s praise to a light show and most of the audience stepped forward to pledge themselves to Christ while a few remained, uncomfortable, in their seats.
Such overt evangelizing would not be unusual at a prayer rally, but this was a daytime celebration in a public school gymnasium, arranged by the principal for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. When the rapper posted a video on YouTube, announcing that “324 kids at this school have made a decision for Jesus Christ,” he drew unwelcome public and legal scrutiny to the event. It was the kind of religious advocacy that is increasingly coming to light, legal experts say, as school populations become more diverse and as the objection of non-Christians — or, in this case, the rejoicing of evangelists — is broadcast on the Internet.
In landmark decisions in 1962 and 1963, the Supreme Court barred official promotion of religion in schools. That principle has remained solid, if pilloried by conservatives who blame it for what they see as the nation’s moral and social decline. At the same time, the courts and Congress have also reinforced the rights of students to pray on their own and to form after-school religious clubs.
But battles over the place of religion in schools continue. This month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit demanding that the Chesterfield County, S.C., school district end what the suit describes as the continuing promotion of religion in several of its schools, including the middle school that held the prayer rally. The A.C.L.U. brought the suit on behalf of a seventh grader who said he was subjected to unwanted proselytizing and has been harassed for his avowals of atheism.
Christian legal advocates counter that such plain violations are far less common than the opposite problem: overzealous officials trying to cleanse the schools of religion, punishing students for protected speech like personal prayer or handing out devotional messages to their friends.
Watchdog groups like the A.C.L.U., Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation say that in the last few years, they have learned more often about what they call blatant violations like the South Carolina rally. It is unclear, they say, whether the number of such events is growing, or whether they are now more likely to come to light. But still, these advocates say, even when clear violations occur, concerned families are often reluctant to bring legal challenges because they fear social hostility.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog