An Interview with Heather L. Weaver: On Religion in the Public Schools

Aug 27, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      What is your exact title and where do you work and what are you trying to accomplish?

My name is Heather L. Weaver. I am a staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Religious Freedom Goes to School is a joint campaign by the ACLU of South Carolina and the national ACLU. It aims to strengthen religious freedom in schools across the state.  The campaign is about respecting and protecting both the right to exercise and express faith in public schools and the right to attend schools free from governmental imposition and promotion of religion.

We hope to remind school districts of their constitutional obligations, raise awareness of this issue, and provide assistance to schools, students, and families in resolving religious freedom violations.

The campaign is intended to be interactive in many ways. Via the campaign, you can:

● Share your story of religious freedom violations in public schools by visiting https://www.aclu.org/secure/report-religious-freedom-violations-south-carolinas-public-schools

● Test your Religious Freedom IQ by taking our Religious Freedom Pop Quiz, available at http://www.aclu.org/religion-belief/religious-freedom-goes-school-pop-quiz.

● Read and comment on our Religious Freedom Goes to School blog series, featuring posts from students, parents, religious leaders, and educators. The series can be viewed at http://www.aclu.org/blog/tag/religious-freedom-goes-school. You can also comment on the blog posts on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/aclu.nationwide

As part of the campaign, we also sent a letter to all public schools districts in South Carolina asking them to review and revise their policies to ensure that religious freedom is fully protected. The letter can be read at http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/sc-letter.pdf

As part of the campaign, we also sent a letter to all public schools districts in South Carolina asking them to review and revise their policies to ensure that religious freedom is fully protected.

2)      Now, as I understand it, in the public schools, there is not supposed to be any daily prayer led by teachers. Has this been occurring in South Carolina?

Your understanding of the law is correct:  The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits school officials from leading, organizing, directing, or participating in prayer with students.  Unfortunately, we have received a number of complaints that school districts across the state are violating this basic protection by imposing prayer on students during class and school events, including assemblies, athletic activities, award ceremonies, and graduation.

When teachers impose or encourage prayer, they put students in an extremely coercive and uncomfortable situation.  Most students, especially younger students, would not feel comfortable contradicting their teachers.

When teachers impose or encourage prayer, they also create an environment in which students of other faiths – as well as non-believers – feel unwelcome and ostracized in the school community.  This is simply not fair.  All students should feel welcome at school, no matter what they believe.

3)      I know various groups roam the streets distributing the Old and New Testament, and I have even been offered a Mormon text- but can schools (either via teachers, or subs or principals) distribute Bibles?

No, as a general matter, school officials may not distribute Bibles or other religious literature to students.  Like school-imposed prayer, when school officials distribute religious materials to students, they put students in a religiously coercive situation.  Most students will feel pressured by authority figures to accept these materials.  This not only violates the rights of students, but it violates the rights of parents.  Religious education is best left to parents, not public school officials.

4)      At most graduation ceremonies that I have attended, someone offers some time for reflection, contemplation, review, or private prayer- NOW, is anything wrong with allowing people to reflect on the ceremony or to contemplate the importance of the event?

Graduation ceremonies are a momentous occasion in the life of a student.  Of course, students, parents, and others in the audience can privately pray or reflect on the occasion during the ceremony.  But schools may not include an official invocation or benediction prayer as part of the commencement program.  Students should not have to sit through an official prayer as the price of attending their own graduation.

5)      I have heard of pretty ludicrous “school day assemblies” which at least in my mind, are a waste of instructional time. Can you give us some examples where you had to intervene?

We have received a number of complaints that schools across South Carolina have been inviting outside groups and individuals into school to present school-day assemblies on a variety of topics, such as drug and alcohol education or sex education.  Many of these groups and individuals often include preaching and other religious messages in their presentations.

One of the most egregious recent examples in South Carolina was documented in our case, Anderson v. Chesterfield County School District.  New Heights Middle School held a school-day assembly featuring a youth minister, who preached to students, and the Christian rapper B-SHOC, who performed Christian songs.  Students were asked to sign cards dedicating themselves to Jesus.

We filed a lawsuit against the school district on behalf of a student, Jordan Anderson, who felt like an outsider because of the school’s continuing promotion of religion. Jordan recently wrote about his experience for our Religious Freedom Goes to School blog series.

Our public schools should be focused on education, not religious indoctrination.  When school officials turn over school time to these religious groups, they take away vital time from the education of our students.

6)      NOW, tough question—IF ALL SCHOOL BOARD members collectively decide to pray before they begin deliberations- is this ok? Or not okay?

School boards play an integral role in the public education process.  Students and parents attend meetings for a variety of reasons and, in some instances, are required to attend them in order to petition the board on a particular issue.  Because of this, the federal courts have held that school districts may not open school board meetings with prayer – just as any other school event may not include official prayer.  Highlighting prayer in this manner leaves many students and parents feeling like outsiders and can divide the community along religious lines.  This simply does not comport with our rich American tradition of peaceful pluralism and religious diversity.

7)      I used to coach basketball, and various other sports. But I never prayed out loud, nor did the team. BUT if everyone wanted to, would this be okay or not?

Students should feel welcome and comfortable participating in school sports and other activities regardless of their religious beliefs.  As noted above, school officials may not lead, organize, direct, or participate in prayer with students.   This includes coaches.   Students may, however, decide, on their own, to pray individually or together in connection with a school event, provided that they do not cause a disruption or interfere with the education of other students.  The Religious Freedom Goes to School Campaign fully supports this right.

8)      I know there are certain days (like Yom Kippur, etc) that are very special to certain religions. Should there be announcements, or any special services (purim) announced?

School districts should accommodate religious holidays that fall on school days by allowing students to take excused absences and make up their missed work.  School districts may not, however, promote religious services or encourage students to attend them.

9)      What have I neglected to ask?

Most of your questions have been about schools promoting religion. And indeed, most of the complaints we have received regarding religious freedom violations in South Carolina’s public schools pertain to the unconstitutional promotion of religion. When schools impose and promote religion, it harms students, parents, and the community.

As a South Carolina minister explained recently in our blog series, the government’s promotion of religion can also harm faith itself. You can read his thought-provoking piece a http://www.aclu.org/blog/religion-belief/protecting-our-faith-respecting-constitution

However, this campaign is much broader than that issue alone.  This campaign also seeks to ensure that students’ rights to religious exercise and expression are protected.  Thus, for example, students should be allowed to wear religious clothing, jewelry, head coverings, or other garments in school.  Students must be allowed to read the Bible or voluntarily pray to themselves and with others during non-instructional time, provided that they do not interfere with the educational process of others or cause a substantial disruption.  Students should be allowed to form religious student groups to the same extent that other student clubs may be formed.  Students must be excused from school for religious holidays and allowed to make up work.

The First Amendment protections guaranteed by the Free Exercise clause and the Establishment Clause are each necessary for religious freedom to truly thrive, and the Religious Freedom Goes to School Campaign is about strengthening the full range of religious liberty in our public schools.

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