(CNSNews.com) – Educators in the nation’s public schools are mistakenly suppressing their students’ constitutionally-protected religious rights because they are afraid of doing something wrong, a religious liberty expert said at a a Family Research Council (FRC) event in Washington on Monday,
Eric Buehrer, director of Gateways to Better Education (GTBE), said that “for 21 years, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has issued guidelines explaining students’ religious liberties” to every public school superintendent in the country, accompanied by a letter asking them to share the information with every teacher, staff member, parent and student in their district.
However, he pointed out that most educators have “never even heard about it” – even though “it would answer all these questions that people have about what students can and cannot do in their public school.
“But for lack of information, many educators end up suppressing students’ religious freedom,” he said.
The DOE guidelines explain “constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools,” Buehrer pointed out, adding that students’ religious rights are not just about prayer, but cover “all forms of expression as well.”
“The way the federal government looks at it is, it’s a matter of free speech and free association,” he said. “You can speak to whoever you want to, including your Maker, about whatever you want to, including your faith.”
But many teachers are “so afraid of doing something that they are going to get criticized for that they end up repressing the faith of the children in their schools,” he said.
Buehrer called on educators to “move from fear to freedom,” emphasizing that “teaching about the Bible and Christianity and creating a faith-friendly school environment is both legally supported” and “academically expected”.
Buehrer noted that the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stressed the importance of religion, morality and knowledge in the citizenry, and recognized the part that schools play in imparting all three to the next generation.
“Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged,” the ordinance reads.
But Buehrer says that public schools have abandoned religion and morality, and now “everything is centered around just the right knowledge.”
However, one to way to restore religious liberty in public schools is to “clarify students’ religious freedom,” he said.
Buehrer pointed out that DOE protects the right of students to pray, read their Bibles and talk about their faith both at school events and in their homework assignments. They can also organize prayer groups, which must be treated like any other extracurricular clubs.
Teachers’ religious rights are protected too, Buehrer added, pointing out that they can also meet with their peers for prayer or Bible studies on school property.
Buehrer said that “this generation of young people needs to understand and cherish religious liberty” so that they can “live it out in the world in which they occupy.”
According to the DOE’s 2003 guidance letter on religious freedom in public schools, “not all religious speech that takes place in the public schools or at school-sponsored events is governmental speech.”
“Teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities,” DOE states.
However, “local school authorities…may not structure or administer such rules to discriminate against student prayer or religious speech.”
"As the [Supreme] Court has explained in several cases, 'there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect'," the letter states.
Buehrer also said that students and teachers should celebrate “Religious Freedom Day” annually on January 16th.
Since 1993, “every president has called upon the nation to recognize and celebrate the religious liberties we have here in America,” he stated, calling on schools to “join the president in recognizing the day.”