According to new guidelines set forth by the Department of Education, schools could lose government funding for hindering students’ prayers.
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“Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families,” Education Secretary Rod Paige told Associated Press. “At the same time, school officials may not compel students to participate in prayer or other activities.”
The guidelines do make clear that teachers cannot pray with students or attempt to shape their religious views.
Significant additions were made in the area of moments of silence and prayer at student assemblies. And, the Washington Post reported, for the first time federal funds are tied to compliance with the guidelines. Schools must compile an annual report indicating their compliance.
“Public school districts that accept billions of dollars each year in federal education funds should be expected to respect students’ constitutional rights,” Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, told AP. “This is basic common sense.”
The new guidelines also allow teachers to meet with one another for “prayer or Bible study” before school or after lunch, according to the department’s Web site. But teachers must also make it clear that they are not acting in their “official capacities.”
The department guidelines also stated that students taking part in assemblies and graduation may not be restricted in expressing religion as long as they were chosen as speakers through “neutral, evenhanded criteria.”
To avoid controversy, read the report, schools may issue disclaimers clarifying that such speech does not represent the school.
The guidelines go on to state that students may “read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour or other non-instructional time.” And although schools may impose some rules regarding these activities, they can’t discriminate against religion in doing so.
During moments of silence, students may pray or choose not to pray, and teachers can’t persuade their students in either, according to the guidelines. The department also specified that religiously themed homework or artwork must be graded on an academic basis, not favored or penalized because of its content.
“Even after repeated dissemination of guidelines, far too many school administrators still ignore their obligation to protect the religious-liberty rights of students,” Charles Haynes, the First Amendment Center’s senior scholar, told AP. “Linking the guidelines to funding is a wake-up call that may finally push all schools to take the First Amendment seriously.”
Opponents of the guidelines call them a push to promote school prayer.
”The Bush administration is clearly trying to push the envelope on behalf of prayer in public schools,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ”Administration lawyers have selectively read case law to come to the conclusions they wanted, and school administrators should be aware of that.”
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.