American Civil Liberties Union Briefer ASK SYBIL LIBERTY Sybil says: SPEAK OUT! ORGANIZE!

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American Civil Liberties Union Briefer ASK SYBIL LIBERTY Sybil says: SPEAK OUT! ORGANIZE! GET INVOLVED! We spend a big part of our life in school, so . . .let's make a difference -- * join the student government * attend school board meetings * petition the school administration. * debate among yourselves ******************* YOUR RIGHT TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ******************* Students, listen up: An important part of our education is learning how to participate fully in the life of this nation. In order to participate, we need to keep in mind two very important things. First, the Constitution is the highest law of this land. Second, the Constitution has a Bill of Rights that protects the freedoms of each and every American. That includes you and me, the young people of this country. So my message to you is KNOW YOUR RIGHTS and EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS. Religious liberty the right of each and every American to practice his or her own religion, or no religion at all is among the most fundamental of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The principle of religious liberty, because it is built into our Constitution, has kept the United States relatively free of the kind of religious conflict that has torn many nations apart. The founders of this country, who were themselves of different religious beliefs and backgrounds, thought that the best way to protect religious liberty in their new nation was to keep the government out of religion. That's why they created the First Amendment. In addition to guaranteeing free speech and a free press, the First Amendment says that the government "... shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . ." Both parts of this guarantee of religious liberty, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, apply to public schools since public schools are part of the government (they don't apply to private and parochial schools). The Establishment Clause guarantees the separation of church and state by prohibiting the government from supporting or promoting religion in any way. The government can't "establish" Christianity or any other religion as the official religion of the United States; it can't provide financial support for any religion, and it can't promote or endorse any religious beliefs or practices. The Free Exercise Clause means that you are free to worship as you choose, and that the government can't penalize you because of your religious beliefs. In a series of decisions dating back to the early 1960s, the courts have created the following constitutional standards that public schools are supposed to respect when it comes to religion: Schools cannot plan or sponsor religious observances or prayers. Schools cannot promote religious beliefs or practices as part of the curriculum, but they can teach about the roles and influences of religion in history, literature and philosophy. Students are free to pray on their own or otherwise express their religious beliefs in school, so long as they don't cause a disruption in class. Students can be excused from some school activities but not from academic courses if those activities conflict with their religious beliefs. For example, if you're a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who oppose saluting the flag, then you can't be forced to salute the flag. ========================================================================== Sybil, Can teachers start off the school day with a prayer, a reading from the scriptures or a moment of silence? ========================================================================== No, they can't. The Supreme Court has ruled that prayers, scriptural readings and even moments of silence are unconstitutional in public schools because they amount to government promotion of a religious belief or practice. Even if the school has described the prayer as "non-denominational," the government is still promoting religion in violation of the First Amendment. ================================================================== Can my school invite a member of the clergy to give a nonsectarian prayer at graduation? ================================================================== Prayers at graduations used to be common, but in 1992 the Supreme Court ruled that the practice violates the Establishment Clause because it forces all graduating students, including non-believers, to participate in a government-sponsored religious exercise. This important ruling came in a case called Lee v. Weisman. The Court explained that including a prayer in the graduation ceremony, whether the prayer was led by a minister, a priest or a rabbi, would give any student who objected "a reasonable perception that she is being forced by the State to pray in a manner her conscience will not allow." That's exactly what the First Amendment is supposed to prevent. ====================================================================== Is it constitutional if students vote to have a student-led prayer at graduation? ====================================================================== No, it isn't. Think about it: Letting students make the decision to have a student deliver a prayer doesn't make the graduation ceremony any less a school-sponsored event, does it? And while a majority of students may vote to pray in a certain way, the minority of students who hold different beliefs, or no religious beliefs at all, will feel excluded from their own graduation exercises. The thing to understand is that where fundamental freedoms, like freedom of speech and freedom of religion, are concerned, the principle of "majority rule" doesn't apply. Those freedoms belong to each of us no matter what they cannot be voted away. =========================================================================== Could my school hold a separate graduation event, like a baccalaureate, for students who want to pray? =========================================================================== The school itself could not sponsor such an alternative event, but student, parent or church groups could off of school grounds. ================================== Is it ever okay to pray in school? ================================== Sure. Individual students have the right to pray whenever they want to, as long as they don't disrupt classroom instruction or other educational activities. For example, a student can say grace before eating lunch or pray before taking an exam. If a school official has told you that you can't pray at all during the school day, then your free speech and free exercise rights are being violated and you should contact your local ACLU for help. ============================================================================ Other than the standards you mentioned before, is there anything else school officials can turn to for constitutional guidance regarding religion? ============================================================================ Actually, there is. In instances where school officials aren't quite sure about a policy they have adopted or are considering, they can give it the "Lemon Test," which takes its name from a 1971 Supreme Court decision in a case called Lemon v. Kurtzman. A public school policy that fails any one of the following three parts of the Lemon Test is unconstitutional. The policy must have a non-religious purpose. Example: In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama's moment-of-silence law because the whole point of the law was to encourage prayer, which is a clearly religious practice. The policy must not have the effect of promoting or favoring any set of religious beliefs. For example, putting up a Christmas display in school that includes such religious symbols as a creche sends a message that the school prefers students whose religions celebrate Christmas over other students. The policy must not overly "entangle" the school with religion. Suppose some graduating seniors and their parents decided to hold a religious baccalaureate service before graduation exercises at a local church, and the school principal took it upon him - or herself to review the content of the service ahead of time. That would "excessively entangle" the school with religious matters beyond what the constitution allows. =============================================================== My school often holds holiday parties. Is that constitutional? =============================================================== It depends. A holiday event that includes making Christmas stockings, Easter eggs or valentines is probably okay because, while those activities used to be associated with a religious tradition, over the years they've become secular customs that young people of many different backgrounds enjoy. But a Nativity pageant, which is full of religious meaning, or a school concert that featured only religious music would be unconstitutional. =============================================================== Some people distribute Bibles at my school every year. Is that constitutional? =============================================================== No. The distribution of Bibles during the school day definitely violates the Establishment Clause. Even if teachers don't actually participate in handing out the Bibles, and even if the Bibles are not used as part of the school's educational program, the public school building or grounds are still being used to spread religious doctrine at a time when students are required to be there. ====================================== Can I organize a Bible club at school? ====================================== Yes, the Supreme Court has ruled that student-organized Bible clubs are allowed if several conditions are met. First, the activity must take place during non-school hours; Bible club or prayer meetings during regular school hours would violate the Establishment Clause. Second, the school must make its facilities available to all student groups on an equal basis. If your Bible club is the only group allowed to have access to the school grounds, then that violates the Establishment Clause. Vice versa, if the school lets other student groups use the building for meetings and events but won't grant your Bible club the same privilege, then your right to free speech is being violated. Third, school officials cannot have anything to do with organizing or running the Bible club. =================================== MEET SOME REAL-LIFE SYBIL LIBERTIES =================================== Demanding that your school respect constitutional principles takes courage and conviction. Rules and practices that don't respect the rights of everyone are often supported by a majority of students, teachers or parents, and going against the grain of any majority can be very difficult. Meet some students who had the courage to defend the Constitution by taking a stand against school practices they believed to be wrong. =========================================================================== My name is Sarah E. Coles. In the summer of 1992 when I was 14, the school board in Cleveland, Ohio, where I live, invited me to attend a meeting to be recognized for the high scores I had gotten on a standardized test. I felt really proud of myself. I took a seat at the meeting, expecting that it would begin with something like a welcome. Instead, it began with a prayer. I was shocked. Prayers at a school board meeting? I couldn't believe it. In the middle of the prayer, I found myself saying out loud, "What's going on here? They aren't supposed to be doing this at a board of education meeting." We learned at school about the separation of church and state. We were taught that all people have the right to believe in their own way, as long as it doesn't harm others. Isn't it important that the school system respect the Constitution that it teaches us to respect? As I sat there at the meeting, I thought: What if I were a Buddhist or a Muslim? How would it feel to be invited to a meeting, only to be offended by your host? The board ought to stop opening its meetings with prayers, I thought, and instead make the meetings free of barriers and open to all. Together with others who felt as I did, I asked the board to drop the prayer from its meetings, but they said they wouldn't. We then consulted with our local ACLU. With the ACLU's help, we filed a lawsuit against the school board, asking for an end to the practice. The Cleveland Plain Dealer published a statement I wrote about the issue. Our case is still pending, but whatever the outcome I believe the school board ought to live by what it teaches. ========================================================================== Hi, I'm Deborah Weisman. My involvement with the issue of church/state separation began in 1986 when my older sister, Merith, was graduating from junior high in Providence, Rhode Island. I'll never forget how uncomfortable I felt when a Baptist minister led us in a prayer at the ceremony. I had always felt that religion is important and has its place, but I didn't think a public school was that place. My parents sent the school a letter that was never answered. Three years later, just before my own eighth grade graduation, my parents called the school to bring up the prayer issue again. A teacher told them, "We got you a rabbi." They thought we objected to the minister just because we're Jewish! But a rabbi wouldn't have made it any better: Prayer in public school was what we objected to. The school board told us that graduation prayer was a tradition. If we had a problem with the practice, they said, we could sue. And that's just what we did. The ACLU of Rhode Island assigned us a lawyer, who asked the federal court to order the school board to stop having graduation prayers. The court ruled in our favor, the school board appealed, we won again, and the school board appealed again this time to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court hears less than five percent of the cases brought before it, so we were surprised when it agreed to hear our case. Almost three years after my eighth grade graduation and nine days after my high school commencement (where there was no prayer), we won: When a public school sponsors a prayer of any faith, the Supreme Court said, it violates the First Amendment. Throughout the years of waiting for a ruling, we were harassed by hate mail and even death threats, and the media attention often bothered me. But I was encouraged by the support we received from friends, and at no time did I regret having taken our case to court. What amazes me is that it only took me and my family to make a difference. ============================================================================= Josh Berger is my name. I'm from Rensselaer, Indiana. When I was ten and in the fifth grade, my dad wrote a letter to my school complaining about the fact that the Gideon Society distributed Bibles in the school every year. The Gideons are very up front about wanting to convert people to their type of Christianity. My family is an interfaith family my dad is Jewish and my mother is Protestant so they're very particular about the kind of religious teaching they want for me and my sister. Although I usually go with my mom to the church where she's an elder, religion is a personal matter in our house. My dad expected that his complaint would settle things. He never thought he would have to go to court. But when the school responded in a hostile way, he went to the ACLU for help in filing suit. At the trial, the school superintendent testified that the school wasn't really pushing any type of religion by letting the Gideons distribute their Bibles because, she said, anyone could walk into the school and pass out religious materials if they wanted to. My mom, who's a teacher in the school district, knew that wasn't true. She knew the school officials would not have allowed any other kinds of religious materials to be distributed. Two older kids who are friends of mine testified for our side. Even though our town is a rural place where people don't like to make waves, many of the neighbors, teachers and churchpeople supported us. None of the kids stopped being friends with me, even though some of their parents disagreed with us. We won our lawsuit. After the federal district court ruled in favor of the school, the appellate court overturned that ruling and agreed with us that the Bible distribution was unconstitutional. Since the U.S. Supreme Court refused the school's request to review the case, our victory stands. ============================================================================ Knowing your rights and helping to educate others about theirs are proven ways of protecting religious liberty for all. For more information, contact your local ACLU. To obtain the following materials, send your name, address and check/money order to ACLU Dept. L, PO Box 794, Medford, NY 11763. "America's Constitutional Heritage: Religion and Our Public Schools" - A 35-minute video (VHS) about religious freedom in the U.S. that features the stories of students and their families. $20.00 The Rights of Students - A 181-page ACLU handbook. $6.95 The Establishment Clause and Public Schools: A Legal Bulletin. $2.00 A C L U Produced by the Public Education Department American Civil Liberties Union 132 West 43rd Street New York, NY 10036


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