By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
LOUISBURG —Two new religion-related policies being considered by Franklin County Schools may have students, teachers and administrators studying closely to figure out exactly what is and what is not allowed as they head back to class on Monday. The proposed changes, set to come before the Board of Education Sept. 10, come in the wake of a complaint filed last spring by the American Civil Liberties Union after a student-led prayer at an academic awards ceremony. The ACLU’s legal threats prompted the school system to ban prayer from graduation ceremonies. Now the seven-member board is looking to clarify exactly what kind of religious activities can take place on school property and what rights students and staff retain while on campus.
“Our hope is that although this resulted from an attack on religious freedom, it will truly lead to more students and teachers realizing that they don’t lose their freedoms when they step through the schoolhouse doors,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Students in Franklin County and across the nation still have the constitutional right to express themselves. During non-instructional time, they can gather to pray, read the Bible, pass out religious literature or witness to classmates.”
Although the Franklin County Schools proposed policy makes clear that the school system must avoid endorsing religion, coercing students to participate in religious activity and becoming excessively entangled with a religious organization, it also clarifies that students may voluntarily pray individually or in groups and that student religious clubs must be granted equal access to campus facilities and media.
Following guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education, the policy specifically allows students to express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other assignments and allows student speakers to pray at assemblies and extracurricular events so long as they are chosen to speak on the basis of neutral criteria. It also reminds administrators that students may display religious messages on their clothes to the same extent that they are permitted to display secular labels and so long as the clothes aren’t disruptive to the educational process.
The policy is a bit murkier when it comes to teachers. Although the North Raleigh News reported that teachers won’t be able to say grace at faculty luncheons, the guidelines state “Before school or during lunch … teachers may meet with other teachers or staff, not students, for prayer or Bible study to the same extent that they may engage in other conversation or nonreligious activities.”
Many of the policy provisions hinge on whether teachers are acting in their official capacity or simply as individuals. One group expected to be impacted by the policy is an after-school gospel choir at Bunn High School, led by an administrator. A spokesman for the school system told the media that the group would probably be renamed as a “show choir,” and would have to drop Christian songs from its lineup unless they had some kind of historical significance.
“This may be a case where equal access comes into play. If the club is truly an after-school, extracurricular activity and not a chorus class, the school system should not be able to control which songs are used or what the group calls itself,” said Dr. Creech, who earlier this month led a seminar about students’ rights in public schools. “It must be treated just like any secular group that might request use of the school facilities.”
He encouraged parents and students as well as school staff to read closely the proposed policy at Franklin County Schools, Board of Education Policies for Review and to be ready to take their faith with them to school next week even as they await the Board’s action in September.
“Yes there are limits as to how religion plays out in the public schools, but students and staff have more leeway than they may believe,” he said. “What a great opportunity for Christian students to step up and start a lunchtime Bible study or a morning prayer group. This new policy must adhere to the U.S. Constitution, but constitutional rights do students no good unless they exercise them. We encourage Franklin County students to educate themselves on what freedoms they have and then to get busy putting them into action.”
To find out more about students’ rights or to set up a seminar in your location, log onto Christian Action League Leads and Offers Seminar: Students Rights in Public Schools .