An Interview with Lori Windham: Becket Fund for Religious Freedom

Jul 3, 2012 by

Becketfund.org

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Lori, first of all what is your exact title and what would you say you do at the Becket Fund?

I’m a Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund, which means I’m an attorney working exclusively on religious freedom cases.

2) Now, I take it the current issue is allowing public school students to attend a parochial school or a yeshiva, or some other facility to learn more about their faith. Am I off on this?

That’s right. Students have been doing it for many years; they can leave public school campus to go to a church or synagogue and take religion classes. South Carolina allows them to get elective credits for the time they spend in those classes.

3) I can remember (and this is back in the 1960’s—) that children were routinely allowed (I believe on Wednesday) to go to some other school- perhaps a catholic or protestant or Lutheran or whatever to receive ” catechism ” if you will (I put catechism in quotes, as I do not want to offend ANY religion at all- but to refer to religious instruction)—-has anything changed since the 1960’s?

The only thing that has changed is the graduation requirements. Schools are requiring students to earn more credits, which means that many students could not afford to take time away to go to religious classes. That’s why some school districts have started allowing them to earn elective credits for the time they spend in religious instruction. They can earn credits toward graduation and still enjoy a valuable part of their religious exercise.

4) I know schools and teachers are very concerned that kids make “Annual Yearly Progress” . Is anyone suggesting that allowing students to go study or read the Old or New Testament would detract from AYP?

No. It’s important to remember that these are elective credits–you can’t skip out on math class to take New Testament or Catechism. But you can spend one of your elective periods taking an off-campus religion course.

5) I have to admit, I know very little about other religions- so perhaps you could enlighten us–are there any religions that are making inordinate demands?

I’m not aware of anyone using released time programs like this one to cause trouble. The students are gone for only a small part of the school day, so it’s a pretty unobtrusive way for them to exercise their faith.

6) I am pretty sure the Constitution says something about religious freedom- but am not sure if ” dismissal from public school ” is specifically covered- can you clarify?

The Supreme Court said back in the 1950s that this kind of program–released time education–was perfectly constitutional. In fact, the Court said that it “follows the best of our traditions” when schools accommodate students’ religious needs. The only thing that has changed is that students may need an elective credit option like this one in order to satisfy modern graduation requirements.

7) I recently read about some high schoolers that got in trouble for TEBOWING–bowing in the halls—-is this allowed ? Or can schools forbid kneeling?

I hadn’t heard about that one. I can tell you that public schools are obligated to respect and permit student religious exercise. So students should be allowed to pray privately or in groups, or wear religious symbols, or talk about their faith with their peers or in school assignments.

8) Now, what about Saturday instruction- should religions not be asked to provide their instruction in say, Lutherism, or Mormonism or Anglican Faith on Saturday? And not disrupt public school education?

The Constitution isn’t that stingy. Under our Constitution, accommodating religious exercise is a good thing, not a necessary evil. States and schools that offer this choice don’t see it as a disruption, but as an accommodation, just like when you add another elective or allow students to go off campus to take a class that’s not available at the school.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

I think you’ve covered it. I just wanted to add that these are purely voluntary classes. No one is forced to go, no one is penalized for not going. This is about giving more choices to public school students. It’s a good thing for public school students, and I am glad to see that the courts will let it continue. You can learn more about this case, and other religious liberty issues in education, at Becketfund.org.

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