A newly launched campaign is reaching out to public school students, teachers and parents across the nation to promote greater awareness about the fundamental right that students have to express themselves – even when it comes to religion.
"Students have the liberty to express their faith at school," clarifies Eric Buehrer, president of Gateways to Better Education, which has teamed up with the Alliance Defense Fund for the National Free to Speak Campaign.
"One of the most important civics lessons all students should learn is that freedom of religious expression is a fundamental right of all Americans, and, as the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, this freedom does not end at the schoolhouse gate," he adds.
Over the past 15 years, the U.S. Department of Education has thrice issued guidelines on freedom of religious expression in public schools – two times (1995 and 1998) during the Clinton administration and once (2003) under the Bush administration.
Included in the guidelines are statements clarifying a number of important religious freedoms on public school campuses including a student's right to share their beliefs, pray, evangelize, read scripture, and invite students to participate in such activities so long as they are voluntary, student-initiated, and not disruptive or coercive.
Under the guidelines, students are also free to express their religious views in a class discussion or as part of an assignment, so long as the expression is relevant to the subject under consideration and meets the requirements of the assignment.
"Faith is an important part of millions of teens' lives," notes Buehrer. "The classroom should be a safe place for students of all ages to express their faith in class discussions and homework assignments, just as the U.S. Department of Education has affirmed."
The problem, says ADF Senior Legal Counsel David Cortman, is that the guidelines had been sent to every school district but didn't make it into the hands of school administrators, teachers, parents, and students.
"As a result, some schools have practices that are in direct violation of the guidelines and the U.S. Constitution," adds Cortman, whose Christian legal group often intervenes in religious liberty cases.
As part of the National Free to Speak Campaign, Gateways to Better Education will be distributing pocket-sized pamphlets that it has produced to the churches, communities, and schools of those who order them.
Additionally, ADF has donated its time to the National Free to Speak Campaign by offering to send a personalized six-page letter to school officials clarifying the freedom of religious expression students and educators have on campus.
The goal of the two organizations is to distribute 500,000 pamphlets and reach 5,000 schools by the end of the year.
"This campaign will help schools improve their practices," says Cortman.
On the Web:
Information on how to order the pocket-sized student pamphlet Free to Speak: What the U.S. Department of Education says about public school students' religious liberties and how to request for a personalized letter from ADF available online at gtbe.org