Religion in Public Schools: Positive Public Relations or a Public Relations Nightmare
Glen Dawursk, Jr.
About 1970, a
college student and his friends decided to meet at their public university’s
school's flag pole to pray. They
distributed flyers promoting their prayer meeting around their Texas A & M campus. In
April 1990, a similar group of students visited three public high school
campuses and prayed with students around their school’s flag poles. That summer
at a youth rally attended by 20,000 high school students, they were challenged
to do the same at their public schools and they did. On
This national event hit home for me this last fall when I was an administrator at a public charter school in the Milwaukee Public Schools. A freshman student came to me and asked if he could put-up a poster about the “See You at the Pole” day and if he could arrange for our students to participate in the event around our school’s flag pole. I was only the assistant principal functioning as the Dean of Students at the time, but responded that I did not see an issue as it was done before school and was out side the building. I told him that I would be willing to participate in the event; however, that he would have to talk to the principal first about organizing and promoting the event during school. The principal, a devout Muslim who prayed daily in his office behind closed doors, told the student that the school could not allow the poster to be put up and that he could not allow the students to pray around the school flag pole. He felt it was inappropriate in a public school. When the student told me about the principal’s decision, I was surprised and even a little confused about where and when religious freedoms were permitted in a public school. It also seemed contrary to our Board of Director’s desire for our school to branch out into our community and seek out means to connect with our predominately conservative Christian neighborhood. The national event day passed and our school did not participate. A few weeks later, I mentioned the situation to another teacher. She in turn told the school’s Executive Director. The Director, also a devout Muslim, approached me soon after and apologized for the principal’s decision and said that students were allowed 128 minutes of release time each week for religious purposes. He also said that students could put up posters promoting similar religious events and could freely organize religious programs with other students at our school. He concluded that he encouraged students to express their religious beliefs at our school and to pray. Now I was really confused. As a Christian myself, I have always thought that religion was no longer allowed in public schools, especially prayer. In this course, we have learned that public relations include allowing the use of school facilities for public/community use. It also promotes public school staff involvement in the community as a significant asset to creating better relations. However, at what point does that cross line? That is why I decided to explore the public relations issues of religion in public schools. This paper will investigate briefly the place religion has in public schools, highlight important cases which have influenced the connection, and take the position that religion in schools does not violate our forefather’s intent and is actually good for community relations.
In January 1802,
Thomas Jefferson, co-author of the US Constitution, addressed the Dansbury Baptist Association.
Note the words, “separation between Church and State." This was the first time the phrase was used. Since then, these five words have been applied continuously in the debate over religion in the public schools.
church and state is actually based upon three clauses in the US Constitution
which regulate the interaction of religion and government: the Religious Test Clause, the Establishment
Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause. The Religious
Test Clause comes from the interpretation of the third clause of the
constitution’s 6th Article.
It states that "no religious test shall ever be required as
a qualification to any office or public trust under the
The Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe case is
an example of how the courts have interpreted the Establishment
Clause as to not allow any type of religious
sponsorship at a public school. In this
Even after the
school district modified the practice to include only “non-sectarian,
non-proselytizing prayer”, on
This was not the first time the courts had ruled against a public school
allowing prayer during a school function. In the case of Lee v. Weisman (505 U.S. 577,1992), the court ruled against the
school practice of allowing a religious leader to read a non-sectarian prayer
at the Providence, Rhode Island public school graduation ceremonies. The courts decisions centered especially on
the school’s leadership planning the prayer and choosing the religious
leader. The court felt that “State
officials… directed the performance of a formal religious exercise at the
public school.”(Lee, 1992) Additionally,
the court relied upon a previous courts ruling to make their decision. In the landmark case Lemon v. Kurtzman (403
Political and religious scholars Barry Lynn, Marc Stern, and Oliver Thomas, in their book The Right to Religious Liberty stressed that all because a policy or rule has a "religious purpose or [may] be motivated by religion does not mean it is unconstitutional as long as it also has a bona fide secular or civic purpose [and] a law that has a remote or incidental effect of advancing religion is not unconstitutional as long as the effect is not a 'primary' effect" (p. 3). They further emphasized that the court has left breathing room for “some entanglement” as long as it is not “too entangled.” (p. 4)
This room for movement is why “the issue of the proper role of religion
in public schools continues to be the subject of great controversy.” (ADL
2004) For instance, several cases have
met the lemon test and have allowed “moments of silent prayer” in schools (Brown
v. Gilmore, 258 F. 3d 265 (4th Cir. 2001); Bown
v. Gwinnett County School Dist., 112 F. 3d 1464 (11th Cir. 1997) and even
the judges in the Santa Fe case
stated "nothing in the Constitution...prohibits any public school
student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the
school day." (530
The Elementary and
Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 require the Secretary of Education to
“issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and
secondary schools.” (ESEA, Section 9524)
Further the Department of Education’s website states that “in order to
receive funds under the ESEA, an
The second clause applied to schools inherently is the Free Exercise Claus. A test case that
narrowed this clause’s interpretation was the Employment Division of the Oregon Department of Human Resources v.
It was not the desire of the authors of our constitution to stop religion in public schools or dissuade use of public facilities for religious purposes; rather, it was the desire of our forefathers to not restrict it to one theology, belief, or practice. Tomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography:
As the Board of Education v. Mergens (496 U.S. 226, 250, 1990) Court explained, "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect." The judges in the Santa case also quoted this statement in their decision. But the implied difference is often muddied as we delve deeper into the issues concerning the separation of church and state.
In conclusion, by no means is this report intended to address every aspect of religion in the public schools. Our course textbook confirms that even amongst religious groups there is contention. It clearly states, “Their [religious groups] purpose is to promote moral and spiritual values. Because of differences in sectarian doctrine, they are divided on issues relating to public education (Bagin, 2008).” Rather, this paper’s intent was to establish a framework of reasonable understanding within the complexity of this issue. Certainly, I have not addressed all areas of the debate. The controversy can also include these other issues:
· Religion in the curriculum,
· Evolution versus creationism,
· Teaching about religious holidays,
· Religious displays on school property,
· Released time programs for religious practice or instruction,
· Student religious clubs,
· Use of school facilities by outside religious organizations and clubs,
· Distribution of religious materials by students,
· Distribution of religious material and proselytizing by non-school personnel,
· Religious dress codes, and
· Teachers' religious expression.
All of these issues will continue to be of concern as our democracy becomes more and more diversified; but even as the law seeks to tweak and focus more intently upon individual rights within the public schools, we remain a nation dedicated to protect the religious freedom of all people within those rights and that will continue to affect the public relations considered essential to the overall success of any public school.
A group of 24 national organizations created a statement called the “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy.” This document has been supported by both sides of the issue as it succinctly states the need for the church and state to find common ground:
I do plan on being the advisor for the student-led, student-organized “See You at the Pole” event set for September 17 this fall. I will stand with the students at my school as they meet outside and circle the school’s flagpole before school for this student-led prayer meeting. While debatable, I believe my involvement will contribute to positive public relations within my community and offer another conduit to connecting with our families. But even more significantly, these students will share in their legal right to express their freedom of religion – even in the shadow of our public school.
ADL: Anti-Defamation League. (2004). Religion
in the Public Schools.
Don and Donald R. Gallagher, Edward H. Moore. (2008). The School and Community
Bown v. Gwinnett County School Dist., 112 F. 3d 1464 (11th Cir. 1997).
Brown v. Gilmore, 258 F. 3d 265 (4th Cir. 2001)
Larson v. Valente,
Weisman (90-1014), 505
Leicester, Paul, editor. (1905). The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Federal Edition. 12 vols.
Lemon v. Kurtzman
(No. 89) No. 89, 310 F.Supp.
35; Nos. 569 and 570, 316 F.Supp.
112). Retrieved from
Andrew A. & Albert Ellery Bergh, editors. (1905). The Writings of Thomas Jefferson.
Lynn, Barry W. Marc D. Stern &
Oliver S. Tomas. (1995, March).The Right
to Religious Liberty: The Basic ACLU Guide to Religious Rights. Southern
McDaniel v. Paty,
Steve. (2006). The Lemon Test. The
Presbyterian Church in
Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426
Sherbert v. Verner, supra, at 402
Stern, Marc D. (1996, June) Religion and the Public Schools: A Summary of the Law. Diane Pub Co.
United States v. Ballard, 322
Department of Education. (2006). Guidance on Constitutionally Protected
Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools. Retrieved on