A consortium of civil liberties and religious organizations -- from the ACLU and the American Jewish Congress to the Baptist Joint Committee and the American Muslim Council -- has issued a parental guide to religion and the law in the pubic schools.

One section states: "Teachers may not require students to modify, include, or excise religious views in their assignments, if germane. These assignments should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance, relevance, appearance and grammar."

In March 1991, Dana Ramsey, a teacher in the Dickson County, Tenn., School District gave a research assignment to her ninth-grade English class. Students could choose any topic they wanted provided they could show four secondary sources for their research.

Among the topics the teacher approved were papers on witchcraft, black magic and the occult and spiritualism (supernatural meetings with dead people).

Brittney Settle, then 15, decided to write a paper on "The Life of Jesus Christ," for which there were decidedly more than four secondary sources. The teacher rejected the topic, telling Brittney it was "not an appropriate thing to do in a public school." Moreover, it was all the more inappropriate, the teacher added, because Brittney was a Christian, already knew a lot about the subject in which she was intensely involved, and so it would be hard for her to research and write the paper in a properly scholarly way. Brittney wrote and submitted the paper anyway, and was given a grade of zero.

When a lawsuit was filed charging discrimination against religious speech under the First Amendment, the teacher said, during a deposition, that "we don't deal with personal religious beliefs in a public school."

Dana Ramsey was supported by her principal, the school board, the federal district court and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. This unequivocal rejection of the student's claim that she was being punished for her religious viewpoint was in odd contrast with a Dickson County School District written policy that in compositions, "Student-initiated expressions in assignments which reflect their beliefs or non-beliefs about a religious theme" are to be permitted.

School boards often tend to be shamelessly contradictory in defending their violations of student speech rights. For instance, this school board said that Brittney's zero grade did not conflict with its stated policy on protected religious expression in school assignments. After all, said the board, Brittney Settles' paper was not "a composition."

Adding to this educational obfuscation was the teacher's response when she was asked about having given her imprimatur to topics of reincarnation, spiritualism and the occult. Those were not, she said, religious topics.

And the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals declared: "Learning is more vital in the classroom than free speech," as if the two had nothing to do with each other. Does that mean all speech, including what has previously been held by courts to be protected student speech -- like refusing to give the Pledge of Allegiance -- are now prohibited? Or the right, affirmed by the Supreme Court, to have a student-initiated religious club before or after classes?

Speaking for the 6th Circuit, Chief Judge Gilbert Merritt dealt with the teacher's convoluted -- and constitutionally specious -- reasons for rejecting Brittney's research paper on the life of Jesus. Those reasons, he said, "fall within the broad leeway of teachers' rights to determine the nature of the curriculum and the grades to be awarded students -- even {teachers'} reasons that may be mistaken."

On the other hand, Michael McConnell, a law professor at the University of Chicago, points out: "When a research paper is otherwise appropriate, as this one was, the fact that it involves religion is not a legitimate basis for exclusion."

Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review Settle v. Dickson County School Board. No reasons were given. The court may have considered the case moot, since Brittney has graduated. This discriminatory 6th Circuit approach to religious speech in a public school is now the rule only in that circuit (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee) but may be cited by courts elsewhere.

But this particular constitutional classroom issue has not yet been decided on its merits by the Supreme Court.

Not surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union was not moved to protect Brittney's speech rights. The ACLU is also sometimes confused about students' religious speech rights in public schools. The state must not compel religious speech in its schools, but students do not shed their religious viewpoints at the schoolhouse gate.