Policy Preparation Can Stem Legal Woes

by Kate Beem

Legal fights over church-state issues in public schools will only increase over the next several years, if experts on both sides of the issue are correct.

Liberal observers say conservative religious groups are waiting for a friendly U.S. Supreme Court that will be willing to take a case that could overturn rulings strengthening the wall separating church and state. And conservative groups see godlessness in public schools undermining students’ right to free speech.

Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal organization championing Christian conservative causes, has said schools are the foremost “battleground” in the culture wars. “Teachers are in the crosshairs,” Johnson told the Baptist Press, a publication of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Being Ready
So school superintendents need to prepare themselves and their school boards, if not for battle, then for a strong defense, both on the legal and public relations fronts, says Charles Haynes, who directs the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center’s educational program. Haynes frequently offers advice to school districts criticized on either side of the issue. He finds superintendents are not only completely taken aback when such situations arise, but they’re also totally unprepared.

“There may be good reason for that,” Haynes says. “If there’s no immediate problem, they don’t want to stir up anything.”


And often, upon scrutiny, many districts don’t have current policies or processes in place to deal with student religious expression. Some are hostile to people, believing that religion has no place in school. Others have never brought policies up to present standards prohibiting government-endorsed displays of prayer.

Issues usually arise out of ignorance, Johnson allows. “In my own experience, in excess of 90 percent of the situations we encounter are based upon a misunderstanding of the law, rather than malicious intent,” Johnson says.

Haynes advises school districts to develop policies and procedures to deal with these issues and to involve community members, not just the school board. And it’s best to do so before a situation arises, he says, but that idea often is a tough sell. Superintendents and boards sometimes find being proactive on these issues counterintuitive, worrying that problems will develop. But involving the entire community in these kinds of discussions can engender support from unlikely places, Haynes says.

“The other direction is almost inevitably going to end in a fight,” he says.

Cultural Sensitivity
That’s what Mort Sherman discovered. Now the superintendent of the 3,500-student Tenafly, N.J., School District, Sherman, 56, was just taking the helm of the South Orangetown, N.J., district in 1992 when he realized he had a potential problem on his hands. At a reception welcoming him to the 3,000-student district, a board member asked Sherman his opinion of displaying a crèche in a school district building.

At first blush, Sherman shied away from that idea. So had the school board. But after consulting Haynes, Sherman and his board convened a 40-member committee to study the issue. The committee included a Catholic priest, a rabbi, parents and teachers. After studying the law and discussing the issue as it related to that particular community, the committee decided that displaying a nativity scene was all right, as long as it was tied to some aspect of the curriculum. But the district also needed to include symbols from other religious and cultural celebrations, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

The important thing, Sherman says, is to consider what’s legal under the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment. And anything done in school should be tied to curriculum and instruction. Teaching about religion is all right; teaching religion isn’t, Sherman says.

In Tenafly, the issue hasn’t come up. But Sherman is considering starting the discussion himself. He doesn’t always want to be in the position of reacting, he says.

“That doesn’t give you the opportunity to sit calmly and raise issues,” he says.

Stephen Uebbing, a superintendent in upstate New York, tells folks that in the end, it’s all about the kids. When his district, the Canandaigua City Schools near Rochester, encountered an issue four years ago, it revolved around some elementary students feeling left out. One well-meaning teacher had assigned her students homework that required them to be Christians to complete it: they were writing about how their families decorated their Christmas trees. Some non-Christian children returned to school upset because they couldn’t complete the assignment. And Uebbing realized his mostly white, mostly Christian district wasn’t being accommodating to some in the minority.

“It should never happen that a child goes home and has had a bad day because of what their religious beliefs are,” says Uebbing, 55.

After studying the issue, the board of the 4,400-student district decided to use the winter holiday season as a time to teach about diversity. So in December, schools contain symbols from many religions, and students learn why different groups celebrate differently.