By law, public schools cannot promote religion in classrooms or at any school-sponsored activity. But neither the Constitution nor U.S. Supreme Court rulings prohibits churches, mosques and synagogues from contributing to the instruction of students, according to a new guide for educational and religious leaders.
The 12-page booklet, titled "Public Schools and Religious Communities," was written by a team of First Amendment specialists who often have represented opposing viewpoints on such issues as school vouchers and student-led prayers.
Yet they have come together in the belief that religious groups can assist in after-school programs without violating current laws, said Charles S. Haynes, senior scholar at The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and the Rosslyn-based Freedom Forum.
Haynes--joined by his co-authors, Steve McFarland, of the Christian Legal Society in Annandale, and Marc Stern, of the American Jewish Congress in New York--introduced the guide at a news conference Wednesday. The Freedom Forum supports "a free press, free speech and a free spirit for all people," the Christian Legal Society opposes "excessive government interference" in the exercise of religion, and the American Jewish Congress is a strong advocate of church-state separation.
Haynes called the guide "an important breakthrough for getting the right kind of relationships between public schools and religious communities." McFarland said it would promote a "new sense of cooperation, rather than antagonism," between church leaders and school superintendents. And Stern emphasized that "religious institutions can do nonreligious things" to help schools educate students and even protect their safety.
All agreed that school systems most often err in one of two ways in their relationships with local religious communities. They fear lawsuits and shy away from seeking assistance from religious organizations, or they brazenly challenge laws by trying to introduce religion into schools. In one recent case, a school district in Beaumont, Tex., tempted the system by inviting clergy to counsel students on a regular basis. A federal appeals court ruled that the program was unconstitutional.
Under the booklet's guidelines, a school can invite clergy to assist in crisis counseling--for example, when students are traumatized by a tornado or by the deaths of fellow students--as long as it invites nonreligious counselors as well. At no time may clergy or lay members be permitted to proselytize or preach to students.
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, in a statement read by Wilson Goode, deputy assistant secretary of education and a former mayor of Philadelphia, encouraged faith communities to "become much more active" in educating and nurturing students at public schools. "In the aftermath of Littleton, every part of the American family has a role to play in helping young people feel connected," Riley said, referring to the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in April.
Haynes said many Americans practice a "reverse hypocrisy" about public education. They condemn the schools for not providing a productive, safe learning environment yet offer no assistance. Public schools "do all the hard work, and we fight and bicker and go our own way," he said.
According to the new guidelines, schools and churches also may cooperate on long-term efforts, such as providing after-school day-care or mentoring programs on church grounds or a safe haven for students to play sports or do homework between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. These are the "bewitching hours" when most violence and crime involving juveniles occurs, McFarland said.
It has been legal for half a century, he added, for schools to allow "release time" during school hours for students to attend a religious education program off campus.
The authors emphasized that schools can and should seek help from a variety of sources, including secular service organizations, counseling centers and civic or business groups. The more open the invitation, the less likely a lawsuit because a particular house of worship obtains a cooperative arrangement with a school, they said.
Other guidelines from the booklet include:
* Participation in any cooperative program "may not be conditioned on membership in any religious group" or a requirement that students take part in a religious activity.
* Schools may use or lease space from religious institutions but "must have a secular educational purpose . . . such as after-school recreation, extended day care, homework study hall, etc." Rooms used as public school classrooms must not display religious symbols or messages.
* Rooms used for cooperative arrangements, such as tutoring programs, should not be "bedecked with scriptural injunctions about repentance and salvation." However, a cooperative site where religious symbols or icons are displayed "might be appropriate."
More than a dozen national groups have endorsed "Public Schools and Religious Communities," Haynes said. Signers include associations for elementary principals, high school principals and school boards and the National PTA. The religious community is represented by Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Baptist and Evangelical organizations.
Free copies of the guide are available, singly or in bulk, by calling 703-284-2826 or by downloading from the Web site, www.freedomforum.org.
CAPTION: From left, authors Marc Stern, Steve McFarland and Charles S. Haynes discuss their guide for religious organizations and public schools.