Religious Rights of Students in Public Education

A commenter made a good observation on my previous post about the case of the Wisconsin high school art student receiving a Zero and subsequent detentions for including in his landscape drawing a cross and the lettering “John 3:16.” The student, named as A.P. in a lawsuit against the school district, signed a policy the teacher presented at the beginning of the semester, which “prohibited any violence, blood, sexual connotations or religious beliefs in artwork.” Hmmm, placing religious beliefs alongside and seemingly on the level of violence, blood, and sexual connotations is interesting. Anyway, the comment was this:

Since when can a minor sign a legally binding contract without the consent of his legal parent/guardian?

Her question got me thinking. A minor can void a legal contract, true. The contract was not binding, but neither should it be meaningless. I don’t think it’s smart to be teaching kids that they can break contracts willy-nilly and be free of all responsibility. HOWEVER, this particular contract…oh boy.

This student should have carefully read the contract at the beginning of the class and raised a stink at that point – because on the face of the policy itself is a violation of student rights, as set forth in legal precedent (Tinker v. Des Moines Community School District (1969) which upheld the right of students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War).

Tinker held that the First Amendment did apply to public school students and teachers, and that regulation of student speech in the classroom would be allowed only if there was a constitutionally valid reason, like “substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others.” A mere desire to avoid controversy is not a valid reason to suppress student expression.

Tinker has since been limited by other cases, with the scope of free speech not including indecent speech (Bethel School District v. Fraser) and with school newspapers being regulated (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier). See also Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators Association and Morse v. Frederick.

Not only the Tinker case, but a document from the Department of Education, circulated in 2003 (Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools), makes it clear that students have a right to religious expression in the classroom. Here is the relevant portion from that D.O.E. document:

Religious Expression and Prayer in Class Assignments
Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school. Thus, if a teacher’s assignment involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer (for example, a psalm) should be judged on the basis of academic standards (such as literary quality) and neither penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious content.

The fact that this “contract” the student in Wisconsin signed was ever conceived and drafted shows not only the ignorance, but the bias, of this teacher/school.

There is a lesson here for all students and parents of students in public schools: Know your rights. Because it’s obvious that attempts will be made to violate and undermine your rights, often out of honest ignorance of the law and confusion among school leaders about the religious liberties of students. That Dept. of Education document is a good one to print out and go over carefully with your child. The prevailing anti-religious climate and the extreme, sometimes absurd, secularization of public life doesn’t appear to be letting up, so be on top of the issues and use favorable laws to your advantage while we have them.

Vigorously protect religious expression – this is a unique American principle. The point of the First Amendment is to prevent a state-sponsored religion, not to squash religious expression in American public life. It is unjust and unconstitutional to mandate that public schools be religion-free zones.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … — Religious-liberty clauses, First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

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10 Responses to Religious Rights of Students in Public Education

  1. mrs darling says:

    Goodness girl you’ve gotten so deep over here you’re leaving poor little ole me out in the dust. I just cant concentrate long enough to wrap my brain around all your deep thoughts, but from what I read im thinkin’ I agree with you! LOL

  2. Jen says:

    Mrs. Darling, it’s actually really simple! If your son, who I know attends a public school, ever tells you that a teacher didn’t allow him to have religious content in an assignment, march yourself right down to the schoolhouse with the DOE document in hand, which I linked to above. If Peter wants to draw a picture of Jesus, or angels, or crosses, on his art paper, he has every right to do so. If he has an assignment to write about one of his heroes and he chooses Jesus Christ, he also has every right.

    But with all the misinformation out there, and simply the current public school climate, students and even teachers are under the false impression that this isn’t allowed, under some bogus and overworked concept of “separation of church and state.”

  3. Mandi says:

    Would this have even been a problem if this was an Islamic prayer lettered across the artwork? Here’s an interesting article I came across lately:

    Oh – where are we headed as a nation? ) :

  4. Jane says:

    I am with you on this one! I think Canada can be worse than the States with intolerance of Christianity. EVERYTHING else goes- in my area, a lot of focus is put on First Nation religion in schools. First Nation culture is a great part of our history, but I take exception to the fact that Jesus is banned from our classrooms. So far we have not run into teachers that have caused a problem, but when that comes, we may be homeschooling again. The principle of such blatant discrimination just gets to me! I have never heard of a student having to sign a contract like that in art class.

  5. Jen says:

    Heather, thanks!

    Mandi, I followed the link, and I tend to agree with you; probably not a problem with an Islamic prayer on the boy’s paper, especially since other religious content was allowed, such as Hindu, Buddhist, etc. art which was hanging on walls in the school.

    Jane, since Canada has no First Amendment, I’m not a bit surprised that you find it to be worse!

  6. Tipper says:

    Your are exactly right about what the First Amendment means. Many people have been led to believe it means no mention of God whatsoever in public places which is so not true. I’m lucky that my girls go to a small rural school where mentioning God is not frowned upon-its even encouraged in some classrooms. But even in my small area-I wonder when the first person will try to stop the way things are.

  7. Jen says:

    Tipper, interesting observation, “I wonder when the first person will try to stop the way things are.” It does take just one or two very vocal disgruntled people to change the course. Reminds me of how psychologists say it takes 10 or 12 praises to overcome just one negative word to a child; the one negative has an unfortunate amount of power.

  8. Cynthia says:

    “Jane, since Canada has no First Amendment, I’m not a bit surprised that you find it to be worse!”

    Sorry, but this statement is incorrect in intent. Free speech is protected in Canada under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Same concept, different name.

  9. Jen says:

    Cynthia, sorry, a little tongue in cheek there! Yes, the same concept is included in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, Canadians don’t have the same degree of freedom of expression offered by the U.S. First Amendment. Bias laws in Canada trump free speech in many cases. And the U.S. is headed in that direction.

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