Religion in Public Schools: Choice, not coercion, is the way to go
Students in the Brownsville, Texas, Independent School District have been told by school officials that they should tuck religious symbols, such as rosaries and crosses, inside their clothing.
An “unlikely” ally, however, has come to the defense of the students: the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
ACLU of Texas Legal Director Lisa Graybill said in a statement that “Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act, students’ right to wear articles of faith in school is indisputably protected,” according to the Houston Chronicle.
Graybill also said she has filed open records requests in order to study Brownsville school district policy based on reports that all students were prevented from openly displaying religious symbols.
Jeff Mateer of the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based organization that is guided by principles of limited government and Judeo-Christian values, said the ACLU defense of these students is not standard procedure, according to the American Family News Network.
Mateer added, though, that it’s not unheard of.
“I would note that this is the Texas ACLU, versus the national ACLU,” he said. “The Texas ACLU has joined with us here in Texas on a few cases, so they seem to be a little more intellectually honest.”
Always nice to get a backhanded compliment from the Religious Right, and as much as it may shock some religious conservatives, both the ACLU and Americans United have always stood up for religious liberty. That includes the right of students to wear religious symbols at school. Americans United has absolutely no problem with this, just as long as the symbols are not part of any school-wide mandate.
The same goes for prayer and the reading of religious books. Students have the right to engage in these activities in public schools in a private and non-disruptive manner. (At the appropriate time, of course. You can’t start reading your Bible when you’re supposed to be paying attention in math class. Of course you couldn’t start reading a “Twilight” novel either.) AU opposes only school-sponsored, school-mandated and coercive forms of prayer in schools.
As for the school district, it claims the policy of asking students not to display religious symbols was an attempt to curb gang identification. Oscar Garcia, the district police chief, said a few students at Simon Rivera High School had been wearing handmade rosaries around their heads and waists, which some officials believed indicated affiliation with prison gangs, according to the Chronicle.
“Through our intel and the contact that our gang officers have had, and as a matter of fact from what gang members were telling us, these rosaries are symbols to identify their association,” Garcia said.
Brownsville District spokeswoman Drue Brown said that Rivera and other high school principals were simply following police advice when they told students to tuck religious symbols inside their clothing.
“Never once did we ever say for students not to wear anything,” Brown said, according to the Chronicle. “The only thing that was said was, ‘Kids, you know, kind of tuck them under your clothes.’”
Underlying gang issues aside, students absolutely have the right to display religious symbols at school as a means of self expression. AU supports that right as much as we oppose government displaying religious symbols in public facilities. Religious Right activists want to characterize AU as an organization that hates religion and its symbols, but as with so many things, they are wrong.