National Catholic Register

Commentary

Public Schools: Faith-Free Zones

BY Gerald Russello

August 14-27, 2011 Issue | Posted 8/5/11 at 5:33 PM

 

When do candy canes become a threat to the republic?  If they’re wielded by a public elementary-school student in Plano, Texas. An appellate court has had to decide whether teachers at a Plano school are immune from suit for taking action against the offending candy canes as a violation of the student’s freedom of religion. The case was recently heard by the full federal appellate court to review the school’s actions.

Although the precise legal issue is arcane — relating to the qualified immunity granted school officials to act in ways that may later be found to be unconstitutional — the case highlights the religion-phobic nature of many of our public schools.

In the case, the school officials had prohibited any religious items during its “winter break” parties, formerly known as Christmas. Indeed, the school had banned using the terms “Christmas” or “merry Christmas” during the winter-break season and prohibited the distribution of any religious gifts.  One elementary student had the nerve to prepare goodie bags for her classmates that included pencils that said “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.” Another brazen child included in his goodie bag a short history of the candy cane, explaining that its shape is derived from the bishop’s crook. A third student — the horror! — was caught discussing a Christian play and distributing tickets. The school not only prohibited such discussions, but confiscated the tickets.

For these antisocial acts, the school and its officials threatened expulsion or other discipline in an effort to keep the school a faith-free zone. The court’s descriptions would be funny if they did not represent such a distorted view of the constitutional law and common sense. The court opinion describes school guards searching through the schoolchildren’s goodie bags and snooping on their extra-classroom conversations. Emperor Nero, that great persecutor of Christians, would have approved.

School districts across the country are terrified of appearing to be less than neutral in matters of religion. So they go to the other extreme and ban all mention of religion in any context.

One cannot really blame the schoolteachers (although Plano has tried to do this type of thing before: banning Christian groups from the school, which was subsequently overturned by the courts, so maybe they can be blamed in this instance for not knowing better).  Teachers and school officials are only relying on the confused decisions of the Supreme Court, filtered through a secular media generally hostile to religious expression in public places. On the one hand, the courts have been clear that students have free speech rights and that schools can in fact allow religious expression without violating the Constitution.

On the other hand, the courts have also been firm in insisting schools, as government agencies, not favor one religion over another or religion in general. So many schools go the way of Plano — keep religion out altogether — because even if they act within constitutional boundaries, there may still be a lawsuit.

Religious students should be able to express their faith publicly, even during “winter break,” and no one should confuse candy canes in goodie bags with the school’s endorsement of a religious message. What is more troubling is the replacement of the free expression of religious beliefs not with “neutrality,” but with a secularism that is actively hostile to expressions of faith. When students cannot discuss the historical origins of candy, more is at stake than just a child’s hurt feelings.

Gerald J. Russello is the editor of University Bookman (KirkCenter.org).