NCLB's Prayer Policy
As with the prisoner of olden times who was forced to choose between two doors -- one hiding a woman and the other a tiger -- educators have a decision to make when it comes to prayer in public schools.
Only this time, both doors may hide a beast.
In February, the U.S. Department of Education issued a "Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer," the disregarding of which could result in the loss of federal funding. But if the procedures -- which allow for student-initiated prayer at school activities -- are observed, districts could wander down a path some advocacy groups say is lined with constitutional misconduct and lawsuits.
John Allison, Grapevine-Colleyville deputy superintendent, said, "We don't really know what the guidelines will affect at this stage. I don't think you are going to find a lot of districts have leapt to make any changes yet."
As part of the No Child Left Behind Act, the guidelines require districts to notify the state education agency of their compliance rate by April 15. School districts must show neither favoritism nor hostility toward religious expression.
But a student can express religious views in homework assignments and can say a public prayer at school activities, such as graduation or football games, as long as the effort is student-driven, according to the guidance.
"It is constitutionally protected prayer," said Susan Aspey, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. "In order to receive federal funding, the local districts have to [confirm that] they don't have any policy that prevents voluntary religious expression by the students."
That is like schoolyard bullying, said officials with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious-liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Not only should the federal government not threaten to withhold funds, but some of the policy guidelines are deceptive, said Jeremy Leaming, Americans United spokesman.
"The darn federal government has put their stamp of approval on these guidelines and they are just flat-out misleading," Leaming said. "It's our contention that public school teachers should follow the law. The U.S. Department of Education does not set the law."
Multiple court rulings have struck down student-led prayer at football games; such prayer at graduations has not been specifically addressed by the Supreme Court, Leaming said. The document also reads as if other matters, such as students' incorporation of religious themes in their homework, have been legally settled when they have not, Leaming said. These inaccuracies could leave districts wide open to lawsuits and trampling on the Constitution, he said.
Not so, Aspey said. "The guidance is an accurate reflection of the current state of the law," she said. "There is [ legal] citation after citation."
None of the North Texas school districts contacted were considering changing their religious guidelines, which already complied with the federal rules. In Keller, if a conflict arose, the district would follow certain steps, said Bill Newton, a Keller assistant superintendent.
"No. 1, we follow the federal law. No. 2, we follow the Supreme Court's interpretation of the federal law," Newton said. "And No. 3, we would follow the interpretation of our federal circuit court."
Rhonda Wilson, PTA president at Bell Manor Elementary School in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district, disapproves of the idea of linking federal funding to compliance but said the guidelines help ensure religious freedom and separation of church and state.
"We have so many issues tied into funding," said Wilson, of Bedford, whose 12-year-old daughter, Emily, attends Bell Manor. "It is not sensible to say a school needs to comply. I think the school should comply because it is good for the school, it is good for the community, and it is very sensible."
Most districts allow a moment of silence or individual prayer. Most high schools hold baccalaureate ceremonies and allow "See You at the Pole" prayer meetings before school. But the issue of prayer in school seldom comes up, Birdville High School Principal Debbie Tribble said.
The district is kept updated on the latest court rulings, "and right now I feel comfortable that our practices reflect what our community expects and go by the legal guidelines," Tribble said.
Despite the emotional conflicts that may arise from the issue, many district officials say they expect little upheaval.
"It seems to be a non-issue in this community," Hurst-Euless-Bedford Trustee Ellen Jones said. "I believe students are very respectful of each other's beliefs. No one has been concerned because no one has been unfairly handled."
That may also be a problem, said Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer, which falls on the first Thursday in May.
"If we don't exercise our freedoms, we run the risk of losing them," she said. "The guidelines are right there in black and white. As long as schools stay within those, they are OK."
Ellena F. Morrison
Districts eye prayer guidelines
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES