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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.

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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, he points out, recently reaffirmed that a school must prevent a captive audience from being exposed to prayer.

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"The Bush administration has given a selective slant and then said, 'Now if you don't follow this you won't get funding,' " says Perry Zirkel, professor of law and education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "Legally, politically, and morally, they've pushed school administrators out onto a dangerous limb."

The Bush guidelines also support the right of public school teachers to participate in religious activities on school grounds - an area that the Clinton guidelines don't touch and that has met with mixed reaction in US courts.

Both the Clinton and Bush guidelines support the right of students to include religious material in their homework and art assignments, although the Clinton guidelines are more cautious here. This is another area where court decisions vary.

But the big difference between the Clinton and Bush conclusions, some point out, is that the Clinton guidelines don't threaten a loss of funding.

And yet, argue some observers, the right to freedom of speech granted under the First Amendment of the US Constitution is so widely ignored by school administrators when it comes to religion that the funding threat was the only way to make them sit up and take notice.

"This is probably a necessary step to ask schools to take the First Amendment more seriously," says Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum in Alexandria, Va.

Although the Education Department under Clinton went to some expense to get the guidelines into the hands of all school administrators, Mr. Haynes says, "The sad fact is that most superintendents and administrators simply ignored them."

He points to a survey his group conducted in 2001 after the Clinton guidelines had been circulated that showed 40 percent of school administrators and 70 percent of teachers said they were not familiar with them.

Ignorance of the protection the law grants to the place of religion in schools, adds Haynes, too often fosters "the reputation that public schools are hostile to religion, and that's not good for public schools or their future."

Claudia Wehmann, an English teacher at Mount Healthy High School in suburban Cincinnati, agrees. Asked to develop a new English elective at her public school a few years ago, she wondered about teaching "Bible and Literature" but thought, "I can't do that." But, Ms. Wehmann began researching the question of religion in class, and says she was surprised to discover that groups from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Council of Teachers of English supported her right to teach the Bible in a nonreligious fashion.

She even went back and read "Abington v. Schempp," the 1963 Supreme Court ruling best remembered today for outlawing the use of the Lord's Prayer in a school's morning exercises. But the court decision also states: "Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."

It's a point of view Wehmann fears most public school teachers have lost sight of. Even her students, Wehmann says, are still occasionally astounded by her free talk about the Bible and sometimes ask whether she can really talk about it in school.

Wehmann says she knows of no other teacher in the greater Cincinnati area offering a class in Bible literature, but that colleagues at Mount Healthy often thank her for doing so, saying they believe the class has filled in significant gaps in student knowledge.

But if teachers haven't been given much instruction by administrators about such rights, that may be in part because most principals and superintendents are simply too busy processing too much information to worry about anything that isn't an immediate crisis.

"The sheer volume of guidance coming from the federal government on all kinds of topics is overwhelming," says Mr. Hutton, who suggests that many administrators - despite the mailing - are still not aware of the Bush guidelines and possible funding cutoff.