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Religion in Public Schools: Live and Let Live

Religion in Public Schools: Live and Let Live

Religion is a vital part of American history and although some civil libertarians would like it to be ignored completely, the First Amendment says nothing about schools not being able to celebrate religious holidays.
OpinionFront Staff
By Linda Orlando

On July 12th, 1998, President Bill Clinton directed the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Attorney General, to provide every school district in America with a statement of principles addressing the extent to which the religious expression and activity are permitted in the US public schools. Clinton wrote, "Nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door. While the government may not use schools to coerce the consciences of our students, or to convey official endorsement of a religion, the public schools also may not discriminate against private religious expression during the school day. Religion is too important in our history and our heritage for us to keep it out of our schools...[I]t shouldn't be demanded, but as long as it is not sponsored by school officials and doesn't interfere with other children's rights, it mustn't be denied."

The statement of principles created as a result of Clinton's comments is a document that Richard W. Riley, then U.S. Secretary of Education, distributed to school superintendents across the country. Religious Expression in Public Schools was intended to put to rest the controversy surrounding the practice of any religion in the public school system so that administrators and students could get back to the more important business of learning. But many teachers and principals either didn't read the statement or chose to ignore it.

The government's statement of principles, contains several important sentences that apply specifically to the issue of school administrators prohibiting religious expression in schools. "Students may also participate in before or after school events with religious content", the document says, "On the same terms as they may participate in other non-curriculum activities on school premises. School officials may neither discourage nor encourage participation in such an event."

In the section discussing official neutrality regarding religious activity, the document says: "Teachers and school administrators, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the state and are prohibited by the establishment clause from soliciting or encouraging religious activity, and from participating in such activity with students. Teachers and administrators also are prohibited from discouraging activity because of its religious content, and from soliciting or encouraging anti-religious activity."

There is also a House Resolution 579, which calls for support of "the symbols and traditions of Christmas." This bill was passed in the House with 401 voting for and 22 against. As one House member said before the vote, "There is no reason why we cannot honor and cherish the traditions of Christmas while also doing the same with Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or any other valued religion celebrated in America. America should never single out a religion for the purposes of banning or looking down upon references to their holiday celebrations."

The text of that resolution is simple and to the point. "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected. Whereas Christmas is a national holiday celebrated on December 25; and Whereas the Framers intended that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States would prohibit the establishment of religion, not prohibit any mention of religion or reference to God in civic dialog: Now, therefore, be it resolved, that the House of Representatives (1) recognizes the importance of the symbols and traditions of Christmas; (2) strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas; and (3) expresses support for the use of these symbols and traditions." So, according to the House of Representatives, school children should be able to celebrate Christmas however they want to, or choose not to celebrate it if they don't want to.

As Clinton said, "...Schools do more than train children's minds. They also help to nurture their souls by reinforcing the values they learn at home and in their communities. I believe that one of the best ways we can help out schools to do this is by supporting students' rights to voluntarily practice their religious beliefs, including prayer in schools."

Some of the most heated debates about practicing religious beliefs in school revolve around Christmas. Public schools, businesses, banks, and government offices across the United States are closed for Christmas; if there is no Christmas, why is everything closed? If some students or parents don't want to participate in a particular holiday event, why does their opinion mean that the ones who do want to participate cannot? If people are so offended by the mention of Christmas, why are they not protesting television programs and movies where characters routinely utter "what the hell" and "oh my God" ― two phrases that are clearly derived from Christian constructs. The numbering of years according to the birth of Christ (B.C.) is used around the world, and for decades it has been the global standard. Do the people who object to Christmas celebrations use a calendar different from the ones the rest of the world uses? If not, why aren't they offended? The list of paradoxes goes on and on.

Freedom of religious expression means that everyone should be able to practice their own religion, engage in their own religious celebrations, and display their own religious symbols however they want to, without complaining about someone else's. Take part enthusiastically if you want to, or abstain silently if you don't want to participate, and expect the same of others. We're a mixture of everything, but we're all one country. And the freedoms granted by this country to all of its citizens should be bringing us all together, not tearing us apart.