Blog of Rights

Backpacks and Belief: Religious Freedom Goes to School in South Carolina

By Heather L. Weaver, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief at 4:34pm

The new school year starts this week for most public schools across South Carolina, and the ACLU wants to make sure students, parents, and schools are primed on one particularly important subject: religious freedom. That’s why the ACLU and ACLU of South Carolina are announcing a new campaign today, “Religious Freedom Goes to School,” which aims to strengthen religious freedom in South Carolina’s public schools.

After you have picked out your new backpacks, settled on that perfect first-day outfit, and gathered all of your school supplies (or paid for all of these items if you are a parent reading this), we hope you will take the time to do these few simple things to learn a little bit more about our campaign and religious freedom in South Carolina’s public schools:

•     Share your story about religious freedom in South Carolina’s public schools by reporting potential religious freedom violations to us here.
•     Read others’ stories about religious freedom in a blog series that kicks off today: Students, parents, religious leaders, and others in South Carolina write about their own experiences with religious freedom violations in the South Carolina public schools and discuss why religious freedom is important to them.
•     Take our Religious Freedom Goes to School pop quiz to find out your Religious Freedom IQ
•     Check out our letter to school districts urging them to review their policies to make sure that religious freedom is fully protected and encourage your school officials to take action.

Religious freedom is a fundamental constitutional right. It guarantees that students (1) have the ability to practice and express their faith in the public schools (e.g., praying at lunchtime or wearing religious clothing), provided that they do not disrupt or harm other students’ educations; and (2) can attend public school free from governmental imposition and promotion of religion.

Yet, in the last two years alone, students, parents, and teachers have contacted the ACLU of South Carolina to report, among other constitutional violations: in-class daily prayer led by teachers; the distribution of Bibles; official prayer and scriptural readings at graduation ceremonies, athletic events, awards ceremonies, and other school activities; school-day assemblies with ministers who preached to students; coach-led prayer at football practices; opening prayer at school board meetings; school officials leading and participating in student religious clubs; and school involvement in the planning, and promotion of, religious baccalaureate services. We even had to file a lawsuit on behalf of one student in Chesterfield County School District to get the school district to comply with the law and respect students’ rights to attend public schools without having religion imposed on them.

Our public schools should be earning straight As when it comes to religious freedom, but unfortunately, many South Carolina schools are not making the grade. We hope that the Religious Freedom Goes to School campaign will spark a renewed focus on these fundamental rights in public schools and local communities across the state and that, eventually, every South Carolina school district will have a stellar religious freedom report card.

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