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Religion-free zone?

America's public schools are in a bind. A new law requires them to allow 'religious expression' on school grounds - or risk losing federal funds. But they risk a lawsuit if they do.

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2003



NEW YORK

It's already been a tough year for Mary Czajowski.

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As superintendent of the 4,400-student school district in Agawam, Mass., she has spent much of the school year worrying about testing, school choice, teacher certification, and paperwork - all to comply with the No Child Left Behind federal education act of 2001.

But now, as graduation approaches, the law is creating a new worry. As the result of a little-noticed provision in NCLB, Dr. Czajowski's schools - like all US public schools - face a double-barreled threat.

If schools allow any religious speech at the graduation ceremony, most are aware that they could face a lawsuit. But now, if they don't - according to the dictates of NCLB - they could risk losing federal funds.

"School districts are in a very, very difficult position," Czajowski says.

The decades-old struggle over the place of religion in American public schools may be about to flare up yet again. A provision in NCLB mandates that if a school has any policy in place that curtails a student's right to "religious expression" as spelled out in recent government guidelines, it could lose its federal funding.

For groups that advocate greater freedom of religion in public schools, the guidelines mailed out to all districts Feb. 7 from the US Department of Education are cause for rejoicing.

The threat to cut off funding "gives [these guidelines] teeth," says Anthony Picarello, vice president and general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington. For too long, he says, school administrators frightened of lawsuits have squashed legitimate religious discourse on school grounds. From now on, Mr. Picarello adds, "the safest course will no longer be to break all ties with religion."

But for groups that promote the separation of church and state, the guidelines spell danger.

"The 800-pound gorilla of these regulations is the threat of cutting off financial aid," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington.

Especially with graduation season approaching, Mr. Lynn worries that "the [Education Department] guidelines are so heavily weighted toward supporting alleged student-speech rights that schools will ignore legitimate concerns that a captive audience at graduation will be subjected to evangelism."

In many respects, however, the guidelines mailed out in early February differ little from a similar set of guidelines from the Clinton administration.

In both 1995 and 1999 the Ed Department under President Bill Clinton joined with a broad array of public groups and drew up a set of guidelines designed to curb excesses on both sides of the church-school equation. They sought to address both schools so frightened of lawsuits that they squashed legitimate religious expression, and schools that tended to promote religion.

The Clinton guidelines were far from hostile to the place of religion - including student-initiated prayer - in schools. On the contrary, they opened with a quote from Mr. Clinton that affirmed, "I believe that one of the best ways we can help ... schools ... is by supporting students' rights to voluntarily practice their religious beliefs, including prayer in school."

The Bush administration guidelines cover much of the same ground - but with a few significant differences.

One is the way they treat the question of "religious expression" at assemblies. While the Clinton guidelines stressed that "the right of religious expression in school does not include the right to have a 'captive audience' listen," the Bush guidelines draw a different conclusion.

They acknowledge that prayer or religious speech initiated by school officials would be illegal but then assert that "the speech of students who choose to express themselves through religious means such as prayer is not attributable to the state, and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious content."

But that advice is not consistent with some recent court rulings, say legal experts, and could be dangerous for school systems if they assume that by relying on the guidelines they'll be in accord with the law.

"The [Bush] guidelines gloss over some real splits in court readings, and that can really mislead administrators," says Tom Hutton, attorney for the National School Board Association in Alexandria, Va. "Court decisions really vary on these things - notably prayer at graduations."

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