The assault on religious liberty in public schools began in earnest in 1962 when the Supreme Court decided that officially sponsored prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. A second blow was delivered in 1963 when the Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional for schools to begin each day with Bible readings.
Regardless of these legal barriers, organizations such as the Christian Law Association have persistently defended the right of Christian students to express their Christian beliefs in public school. God has rewarded these efforts by restoring the rights of many Christian students not only to pray in school but also to witness.
However, the right of teachers and other school officials to share their Christian faith is much more limited. A teacher must remain neutral about religious matters and may not do the following:
- Read the Bible or tell Bible stories (devotionally) in the classroom
- Conduct devotional exercises
- Pray in the classroom or during extracurricular events
- Witness to students while on school grounds
Public school teachers are permitted to teach positive values in a religiously neutral way in the classroom and may also teach about religion as part of the academic curriculum, including the history of religions, comparative religions, biblical literature, and the role of religion in American history and world history. The history of religious holidays may also be taught, and teachers may objectively answer student questions about what various religions believe.
Teachers may arrange to meet students outside school hours to witness to students who are asking questions about spiritual matters. A faculty member may meet with the student leaders of Bible clubs off campus in order to assist them and train them to lead other students.
One Florida teacher was initially frustrated by this restriction but chose to mentor a few student leaders in an off-campus setting. It was exciting for this teacher to then see the students take an active role in leading their classmates to Christ, something that might not have developed had the students relied on the teacher to do the witnessing.
The rights of many Christian students have been restored in public schools; however, the right of teachers and other school officials to share their faith is more limited.
It is also legal for a coach to organize a voluntary prayer time off school property before the players gather on the field.
In addition to these options, there are multiple opportunities for community groups to defend Christian education in public schools.
For instance, soulwinners may not be prevented from witnessing or distributing tracts on public sidewalks outside schools, as long as the free-speech activity remains orderly, the noise level does not exceed appropriate limits, and there is no interference with the educational activity of the school.
In some cases, outside Christian groups will even have access to students on school property. A Christian group will be entitled to such access if school officials have already permitted groups such as the Little League, 4-H, the Boy Scouts, or any other group to distribute information to students during the school day. For example, Gideons have used the principle of equal access to gain the right to distribute Bibles to students on school property during non-instructional times in the school day.
The most under-used method by which outside groups can reach public school children is a Release Time program. If approved by a school board and with parental permission, students may leave the school for no more than one hour per week in order to attend religious instruction offered by churches or other religious institutions. Such permission is already on the books in hundreds of public school districts. All that is needed is one or two adults to coordinate and teach the program.
While there is constant legal pressure to further resist these freedoms, God’s people must be diligent to exercise the liberties currently available.
The future of America depends on the training of today’s young people.
Abridged from the article “Defending Christian Freedom in America’s Public Schools” by Dr. David C. Gibbs, Jr., and Dr. David Gibbs III. Used by permission from the Christian Law Association, a legal missionary ministry at www.christianlaw.org.
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