In a lesson about Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Mitchell's first-grade teacher in Arizona asked students to list their dreams and she would write them on the chalkboard. Mitchell shared his dream that everybody would come to know God.
But his teacher told him to pick another dream: “We can't talk about that here,” she said.
In a California classroom, an English teacher refused Kristen's assigned personal essay on how she felt about recent brush fires because hers centered on a Bible verse. Also in California, school administrators prohibited a student government candidate from saying in her speech, "God is in control of this election."
Dakota, a high school student in Fort Worth, Texas, was disciplined by his school for merely stating his religious beliefs about homosexuality during a class discussion on religious beliefs.
These students were each within their First Amendment constitutional rights to religious expression. But after Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s that stopped required daily Bible reading in public schools and teacher-led prayer each morning, and after decades of attacks from secularist organizations, public perception has erroneously shifted to the belief that faith and the Bible are no longer welcome in the classroom.
Confused about legal boundaries, teachers too often err on the side of banning religious expression in their classrooms, while secularists promote freedom from religion, rather than freedom of religion. Today, few American students, parents or school staff know their religious liberties at school. Some public schools in the United States can be almost as hostile to religious expression as some foreign nations, where people of faith are actively thwarted from expressing their beliefs.
The ministry of Open Doors promotes religious liberty abroad; the focus of Gateways to Better Education is freedom of religion in the United States – specifically its public schools. These organizations are joining forces to support Religious Freedom Sunday, Jan. 15, which raises awareness of students’ and teachers’ religious liberties in public schools.
President Clinton in 1995 directed the U.S. Department of Education to send religious expression guidelines to more than 15,000 of our nation’s public school superintendents. It spelled out permissible religious expression for students and staff during the school day.
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What's allowed may surprise you: Students can pray, read Bibles or other religious material, and talk about their faith at school. They can organize prayer groups and religious clubs. They can express their faith in schoolwork and at graduation ceremonies.
The issue isn't that schools need to talk about religion itself, but rather the important civics lesson regarding religious freedom. When schools inform students of their freedom of religious expression, they are not only teaching an importance civics lesson, they are welcoming students to live by the moral guidance of their faith while at school. This can only be a good thing and help the schools' overall climate.
Unfortunately, even though these guidelines were reissued in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, most schools haven't distributed them to students, parents and school staff as requested.
The courts and federal and state departments of education encourage a spectrum of faith expression in public schools. Schools urgently need a civics lesson. But churches, too, can educate their members about these rights.
The president has annually declared Jan.16 to be Religious Freedom Day since 1993, and calls upon Americans to observe this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools and places of worship.
January 16th is the anniversary of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom passed in 1786. Thomas Jefferson wrote the legislation and considered it one of his greatest achievements. It stopped the practice of taxing people to pay for the support of the local clergy, and it protected the civil rights of people to express their religious beliefs without suffering discrimination. It was influential in developing the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom just three years later.
Monday, Jan. 16, is Religious Freedom Day. Sunday, Jan. 15, is Religious Freedom Sunday. On that Sunday, we’re asking churches to show a one-minute video explaining Religious Freedom Day, pray a prayer of blessing on the teachers and students in the congregation, and draw the congregation’s attention to the importance of religious freedom in their local public schools.
Gateways to Better Education also has published a pamphlet summarizing the U.S. Department of Education guidelines to insert in church bulletins. To download the video and other resources, visit www.ReligiousFreedomSunday.com.
Understanding the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines on freedom of religious expression at school could prove transformational in empowering students of faith to freely exercise their constitutional rights in our nation's public schools.
An estimated 100 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest and even death for their faith in Christ, with millions more facing discrimination and alienation. Open Doors (www.OpenDoorsUSA.org) supports and strengthens believers in the world's most difficult areas through Bible and Christian literature distribution, leadership training and assistance, Christian community development, prayer and presence ministry and advocacy on behalf of suffering believers.
Gateways to Better Education (www.gtbe.org) is a nonprofit organization specializing in helping public schools understand how to create faith-friendly learning environments and lawfully teach students about Judeo-Christian history, thought and values.