Blog of Rights

Constitution Day: Cherry-picking the First Amendment

By Heather L. Weaver, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief at 1:30pm

Today, many public schools will recognize and celebrate Constitution Day, the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.  Two hundred and twenty-five years later, you might think we could all agree on a few simple principles regarding how that document, which was amended a few years later to include the Bill of Rights, applies in the schools that will be studying it. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Constitution’s religious freedom protections, a handful of groups are pushing public schools to adopt a lopsided view of religious liberty that could further marginalize students of minority faiths, as well as non-believers, denying them the full benefit of the public education experience.

Last month, the ACLU launched a new campaign, Religious Freedom Goes to School, to strengthen religious freedom in South Carolina’s public schools. As we explained in our letter to district superintendents: “Religious liberty requires that we protect both the right of free exercise for individuals of every faith and the right to remain free from governmental coercion and promotion of religion.” This holistic understanding of religious freedom recognizes that the First Amendment includes the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause and that the constitutional guarantees bestowed by each work hand-in-hand to ensure that religious liberty thrives in our public schools and beyond. The ACLU has steadfastly defended this inclusive view of religious liberty, representing or otherwise supporting myriad students and parents in cases that challenge schools’ promotion of religion and cases that assert the rights of students, including Christian students, to exercise and express their faith at school.

As we work diligently to educate public schools about their full constitutional obligations, however, several groups like Liberty Counsel and the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund), have been shamelessly encouraging school officials to flout the Establishment Clause by injecting school-sponsored religion into school curricula and school events. In August, Liberty Counsel, a self-proclaimed “Christian public interest law firm,” said it mailed a copy of its “Patriot’s Handbook of Religious Freedom in Public Schools” to every public school in the country.  

Declaring that “[g]eography, sociology, mathematics, science, English, spelling, history, and any other topic cannot be adequately discussed without objectively overviewing religion and religious influences,” the guide offers extremely questionable nuggets of educational and legal advice, including:

“When discussing evolution, the teacher may also overview competing viewpoints such as creation science or abrupt appearance. The teacher may also overview various religious viewpoints regarding the origin of the universe.”
“To be objective, a teacher must present all facets of a subject, both secular and religious. So long as a teacher presents both secular and religious aspects of subject matter in an objective manner, the teacher may bring religion into any topic.”
“Teachers may invite outside speakers . . . to discuss a religious viewpoint, or may utilize a debate format with opposing and contrasting views.”

A letter sent last week by ADF to South Carolina schools similarly offers troubling advice, urging schools to adopt policies that would lead to prayer as an official part of school events.  

Liberty Counsel and ADF are either uninformed about the law or purposefully misstating it: Public school teachers may not present creation science, intelligent design, or any other religious belief about the origin of life in connection with evolution lessons. They may not include official prayer in school events or invite outside guests to deliver religious presentations to students. Nor may teachers go out of their way to inject religion into every subject imaginable. 

School officials should view advice from these groups skeptically. They routinely cherry-pick the Constitution, the First Amendment, and the case law to create a skewed version of the law that has little regard for the Establishment Clause and the fundamental principles it protects: When the government favors a particular faith or promotes religion generally, it interferes with our right to decide for ourselves what faith, if any, to follow and it unnecessarily creates religious strife that threatens our pluralistic civil society.  Indeed, according to Liberty Counsel’s public schools guide, the U.S. Supreme Court is “the biggest destroyer of American values and religious freedom in this country” because it has dared to recognize that school-sponsored prayer and Bible readings violate the separation of church and state.  Not to mix our fruit idioms, but it looks like sour grapes to us.

On this Constitution Day, we call on public schools in South Carolina and across the country to reject this narrow, exclusionary view of religious freedom and embrace a vision of religious liberty that will help all students – regardless of faith, belief or non-belief – feel welcome and safe in our public schools. The Constitution demands no less.

Have you or someone you know experienced religious freedom violations in public schools? Share your story.

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