District addresses religion in schools
Amidst national culture wars between religious and secular forces, Douglas County School District leadership has drafted new policy intended to create an atmosphere of tolerance and inclusion in the classroom.
On Tuesday, school board members approved the first reading of new board and administrative policies collectively entitled, “Recognition of Religious Beliefs and Customs.”
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” What that means in public schools has been a difficult, often litigious, subject for school boards and administrations.
“Because it’s an emotional, touchy subject, we wanted to have something in writing,” said Superintendent Lisa Noonan. “We want to be proactive, not reactive.”
Noonan said the majority of language in the new policy was taken straight from a 1980 federal case – Florey v. the Sioux Falls School District.
“A lot of board policy in the school district is set by the Supreme Court,” she said. “Almost the entire first page of this administrative regulation came from that case. It was challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals Eighth Circuit. The Supreme Court chose not to hear it, so it stands.”
The Eighth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of Christmas observances in public schools, “so long as secular as well as religious aspects of Christmas are presented.”
“The First Amendment does not forbid all mention of religion in public schools; it is the advancement or inhibition of religion that is prohibited,” Judge Gerald Heaney wrote in the court’s decision.
“It is helpful for a district to have something in place to provide guidelines,” Noonan said. “I just noticed we didn’t have anything.”
While the new policy welcomes diversity of belief, it prohibits “sectarian indoctrination.”
“The district recognizes and shall honor the constitutional rights of students to the free exercise of religion and to have their schools free from sectarian control or influence,” reads the board policy, which provides a broad overview. “Staff members and students are encouraged and expected to create an atmosphere in the schools where the diverse beliefs of all students may be accommodated in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding.”
The administrative regulation, designed to accompany the board policy, is more specific:
“It is accepted that no religious belief or nonbelief should be promoted by the school district or its employees, and none should be disparaged.”
The new regulation focuses on religious holidays and how religion may be included in curriculum.
Following the Eighth Circuit’s guideline, as long as a holiday has both religious and secular aspects, it may be observed in public schools. Religious symbols, such as a cross or menorah, must be temporary.
“It talks about symbols on display being temporary in nature,” Noonan said. “These are traditions in society that have become part of our culture now, and the symbols are allowed as long as they are temporary in nature.”
The regulation defines temporary in nature as “that time necessary to complete the particular instructional program.”
Noonan gave the example of a Christmas tree and a nativity scene. She said the former has become more secular and more widely displayed than the latter, but both items may be permissible under the policy if they’re temporary in nature and not used to promote a specific religion.
“We certainly believe in tolerance and teaching diversity,” Noonan said. “Thinking about the typical classroom during the day, the lessons put together, those are driven by state standards. The teaching of religion and culture is mentioned in the state standards. But this specific policy is more intended to provide guidance during the holidays and certain seasons and times of the year.”
Although more problems may arise around the holidays, the new regulation addresses general curriculum as well.
“It is essential that the teaching about, and not of, religion be conducted in a factual, objective, and respectful manner,” reads the policy. “The emphasis on religious themes in the arts, literature and history should be only as extensive as necessary for a balanced and comprehensive study of these areas. Such studies should never foster any particular religious tenets or demean any religious beliefs.”
One provision focuses primarily on student’s First Amendment rights in the classroom:
“Student-initiated expressions to questions or assignments which reflect their beliefs or nonbeliefs about a religious theme shall be accommodated. For example, students are free to express religious belief or nonbelief in compositions, art forms, music, speech and debate.”
“I like that it says ‘student-initiated,'” Noonan said. “We want a safe environment for sharing.”
Students, and staff members, may also be excused from practices contrary to their religious beliefs, “unless there are clear issues of overriding concern that would prevent it.”
For instance, Noonan said, several students choose not to attend school parties or celebrations for religious reasons and face no penalty for doing so. She said it would be harder for a student to invoke their religion as a reason to be excused from a final exam.
“We’re not trying to generate new activities, but to provide guidance for school leaders when questions come up,” she said. “These policies are not set in stone forever. We can always come back and revisit them. If we discover some change or gap or conflict, they’re not beyond our revision.”