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October 20, 2014 1

NC School District Continues Legally Questionable Bible Course

News reports about a ques­tion­able ele­men­tary school Bible course recently brought national atten­tion on the Rowan-Salisbury, NC pub­lic school sys­tem. Accord­ing to these reports, the classes are funded by reli­gious non­profit groups and include explicit reli­gious indoc­tri­na­tion. If true, these prac­tices raise seri­ous con­sti­tu­tional issues. nc-school-religion

Shortly after the Bible course made the news, the Rowan-Salisbury School Board held a meet­ing to con­sider whether the classes should con­tinue. Although the Board voted to review the course cur­ricu­lum, it appears that the classes will con­tinue pend­ing the review. In sup­port of con­tin­u­ing the Bible classes, Chair­man of the Rowan County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers Jim Sides report­edly stated: “I am sick and tired of being told by the minor­ity what’s best for the majority.”

Our nation’s pub­lic schools cer­tainly are not devoid of reli­gion. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that pub­lic schools can teach about reli­gion in an objec­tive and neu­tral man­ner, but they can­not teach or indoc­tri­nate reli­gion. For school offi­cials, mak­ing that dis­tinc­tion — par­tic­u­larly for a Bible course — is no easy task. Indeed, a let­ter ADL sent to the Rowan-Salisbury School Board in advance of its recent meet­ing noted that all reported legal deci­sions on Bible courses in pub­lic schools found con­sti­tu­tional violations.

ADL firmly believes that com­par­a­tive reli­gion classes are more appro­pri­ate for pub­lic schools. By its vote, the Rowan-Salisbury School Board appar­ently does not agree. But the Board needs to take a num­ber of impor­tant steps to ensure that its Bible course is con­sti­tu­tional and reli­giously inclu­sive. First and fore­most, it has to abide by the Supreme Court’s direc­tive, which requires a num­ber of prac­ti­cal steps.

For starters, the classes should be lim­ited to sec­ondary schools. When it comes to reli­gion in the pub­lic schools, the Courts are most pro­tec­tive of ele­men­tary school stu­dents because they are most impres­sion­able and vul­ner­a­ble to reli­gious coer­cion. Try­ing to craft a con­sti­tu­tion­ally per­mis­si­ble ele­men­tary school cur­ricu­lum is sim­ply unwork­able, and will undoubt­edly lead to more con­tro­versy and litigation.

The cur­ricu­lum also should be reviewed by a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies or another expert, and Bible course teach­ers should receive train­ing on Estab­lish­ment Clause and reli­gious diver­sity issues.

Chair­man Sides and the school board should keep in mind that our nation’s pub­lic schools serve all of our chil­dren, whether they are in the reli­gious major­ity or minor­ity. If a school makes the deci­sion to teach a Bible course, the cur­ricu­lum should be bal­anced and plu­ral­is­tic in nature. It can­not advo­cate one par­tic­u­lar reli­gion, or one bib­li­cal inter­pre­ta­tion or trans­la­tion over another.

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October 3, 2014 0

Sectarian Legislative Prayer – Walking In The Religious Minority’s Shoes

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent leg­isla­tive prayer deci­sion (Greece v. Gal­loway) gen­er­ally sanc­tions sec­tar­ian prayers before meet­ings of local leg­isla­tive bod­ies except for the most egre­gious cir­cum­stances.  In oppos­ing the Court’s deci­sion, Jus­tice Elana Kagan astutely con­cluded that “[w]hen the cit­i­zens of this coun­try approach their gov­ern­ment, they do so only as Amer­i­cans, not as mem­bers of one faith or another.  And that means that even in a partly leg­isla­tive body, they should not con­front government-sponsored wor­ship that divides them along reli­gious lines.”  At a recent county com­mis­sion meet­ing, a local com­mis­sioner may have expe­ri­enced the les­son of Jus­tice Kagan’s admonition.seal-of-escambia-county

The Escam­bia County, FL Com­mis­sion allows sec­tar­ian invo­ca­tions at its pub­lic meet­ings by a com­mu­nity mem­ber of any faith or reli­gion.  At the Sep­tem­ber 25th Com­mis­sion meet­ing, David Suhor, who is Pagan, recited a pagan prayer song “call­ing of the direc­tions north, east, south and west.”  Regard­ing his prayer, Mr. Suhor later stated “[i]n a way I would like for other peo­ple to expe­ri­ence what it’s like when I go to a meet­ing and am asked to pray against my conscience.”

Mr. Suhor’s prayer appar­ently offended at least one per­son in the room. Accord­ing to a news report, County Com­mis­sioner Wil­son Robert­son, “left the room because of his Chris­t­ian beliefs,” and he stated “[p]eople may not real­ize it, but when we invite some­one a min­is­ter to pray they are pray­ing for the county com­mis­sion­ers for us to make wise deci­sions and I’m just not going to have a pagan or satanic min­is­ter pray for me.”

ADL opposes sec­tar­ian leg­isla­tive prayer prac­tices because of the reli­gious exclu­sion and divi­sion result­ing from them – par­tic­u­larly for reli­gious minori­ties.  If the com­mis­sioner does not want a com­mu­nity mem­ber to pray for him in a faith that offends his con­science, per­haps he and other com­mis­sion mem­bers should adopt a moment of silence pol­icy or at least a non-sectarian invo­ca­tion policy.

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August 28, 2014 0

Town of Greece’s New Invocation Policy Excludes Religious Minorities

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent per­mis­sive leg­isla­tive prayer deci­sion (Greece v. Gal­loway) allows for sec­tar­ian invo­ca­tions at meet­ings of local leg­isla­tive bod­ies. Open­ing prayer prac­tices, how­ever, are not with­out limit. The deci­sion requires that a local leg­isla­tive body must imple­ment a non-discrimination pol­icy with respect to prayer givers.  The Town of Greece, New York —  a party to the Supreme Court case – recently adopted a new Town Board invo­ca­tion pol­icy.  This pol­icy cer­tainly vio­lates the spirit of the Greece decision’s non-discrimination man­date, but it is an open ques­tion whether it  actu­ally vio­lates it.supreme-court-civil-rights

The new pol­icy allows pri­vate cit­i­zens to sol­em­nize the pro­ceed­ings of the Town Board by offer­ing a “prayer, reflec­tive moment of silence, or a short sol­em­niz­ing mes­sage.”  How­ever, the per­son pro­vid­ing the sol­em­niz­ing mes­sage must be an appointed rep­re­sen­ta­tive of  “an assem­bly that reg­u­larly meet[s] for the pri­mary pur­pose of shar­ing a reli­gious per­spec­tive.”  The assem­bly must either be located within Greece, or it can be located out­side of town if a res­i­dent reg­u­larly attends the assem­bly and requests its inclu­sion on an offi­cial “Assem­blies List.”

The term “reli­gious per­spec­tive” cer­tainly encom­passes minor­ity faiths and non-believers.  Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeat­edly ruled that athe­ism and eth­i­cal human­ism are sin­cerely held reli­gious beliefs.  How­ever, while there may be Athe­ists, Bud­dhists, Eth­i­cal Human­ists, Jews, Mus­lims, Sikhs or other reli­gious minori­ties resid­ing in Greece, they may not have a con­gre­ga­tion within or prox­i­mate to town.  So the new pol­icy effec­tively deprives reli­gious minori­ties from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the invo­ca­tion oppor­tu­nity.   This is one rea­son why ADL views leg­isla­tive prayer prac­tices as divi­sive and poor pub­lic pol­icy.  If the Town of Greece truly wants to be inclu­sive and live up to the spirit of the Supreme Court’s non-discrimination require­ment, it should give all res­i­dents a true oppor­tu­nity to sol­em­nize Town Board proceedings.

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