Religion in schools, how much is too much?

by Pat Drago

For many of us, our faith permeates our lives. Religion, however, not only comes in many forms, it is based on strong emotions, and controversy is as old as mankind.  In modern times, waves of immigration brought people together whose religious faiths differed.  During the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, the issue came to a head over how to teach religion in schools.  President Grant and Senator Blaine proposed a solution, keep schools and religion separate.   A U.S. constitutional amendment failed, but 38 states passed their own version of the Blaine amendment to separate church and state. Florida was one of those states.

Public opinion wafts and wanes over how best to keep a moral center for our children.  The issue has once again reached the Florida legislature when HB 303 Daniels and SB 436 Baxley were filed to allow religious expression in schools.  The bills are framed to prevent districts from penalizing parents, teachers or students who express their religious beliefs in course work, artwork, or other assignments.  The bill goes on to authorize students to pray, organize prayer groups and religious events, and states that districts may not prohibit teachers from participating in student initiated religious activities.

Pat Drago, who was a former senior executive in Volusia County schools, offers some background on the role of religion in schools.

The First Amendment to the constitution remains in effect in public schools:

1.Students may pray at any time, only they may not conduct prayers in a public way that would intend to affect others.
2.  Teachers can pray, as well, so long as it is not a public event that might be construed as affecting others.
3.  School districts that make their facilities available for other users must be content neutral to its renters so long as they do not incite or foment social unrest.
What is proposed in HB 303 changes the tone of religious activities on a school campus by making public displays of religious activities during the school day accepted.  On many campuses if students or faculty decline to participate it could be construed as anti-religious view and cause strife.
Schools must be neutral and they know it.  Our campuses are populated by children and faculty of diverse religious traditions and beliefs.  Making those beliefs public could invite opportunities for prejudice and pressure.  The Blaine amendment and the First Amendment require the school and government to be neutral on religion and not supportive.  Let those stand.  No change is needed.
Posted in Constitutionality, Florida, Religion.

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