by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, ACLU of Virginia Executive Director
Public school students have a cherished and fundamental First Amendment right to express their religion in many ways throughout the school day. They may gather at the flagpole to pray; they may pray before meals; they may discuss religion with their peers; they may include their beliefs in their academic work, and they may distribute religious literature. The ACLU nationally and in Virginia (the ACLU) is deeply committed to protecting students’ right to these kinds of individual voluntary religious expression. Recently, the ACLU has defended the right of Virginia public school students to wear religious t-shirts to school, post the Ten Commandments on their lockers, and wear rosaries to school.
Why, then, are some residents of Lee County, Virginia accusing the ACLU of trampling on their religious freedom?
Today, the ACLU released to the media a letter it sent to Mark Carter, the Superintendent of Schools in Lee County, on May 21, 2014 about reports of multiple First Amendment violations at Thomas Walker High School. The letter informed the Superintendent that, based on information provided to the ACLU by County residents, school officials at the High School, including teachers and administrators, were actively promoting one religion, their religion, during school hours on school grounds as a part of official school activities. It is our understanding that, although we have not previously released the letter, it has been widely circulated among administrators, faculty, parents and students by school officials.
In our letter, signed by the ACLU’s legal director, we indicated that among the religious activities at the high school reported to us by community residents included: i) the posting of the Ten Commandments in the hall outside the principal’s office; ii) the active engagement of teachers in the activities of a student religious club, including testifying to their faith, some of which occurred during instructional time during school hours; and iii) the required memorization and scheduled performance by seniors at graduation of a religious hymn, “Till We Meet Again at Jesus’ Feet.” The letter requested “written assurances within one week that ‘Till We Meet Again at Jesus’ Feet’ will be removed from this year’s graduation program and that the other legal violations described above will be remedied immediately.”
In a formal response to our letter, counsel to the school division has told the ACLU that seniors will not be “requested to learn and required to sing” the hymn at graduation as currently planned. We were also told that, although the School Division appears from counsel’s representations to believe that posting of the Ten Commandments in a public school hallway can be defended legally, it would not “advance arguments based on those factors at this time” and the Ten Commandments would be removed from the school hallway. We were also told that other allegations in our letter were not factual.
While we would like to believe that the letter from the school division’s counsel means that all children in Lee County will be able to go to school in an atmosphere free of religious coercion or harassment, two things cause us concern about whether schools in Lee County will treat all children equally regardless of faith as required by the federal and state constitutions and by Virginia statutes, or instead continue to participate in activities that make children of minority faiths feel like outsiders in their own schools.
Our first concern is that issues related to unconstitutional religious activities in the public schools of Lee County are not new. Similar issues were raised with the School Board as far back as 1982. And, the fact that it appears that seniors may have been required to learn and sing a religious song at the high school graduation for decades despite clear and unambiguous court rulings that such government mandated religious activities are unconstitutional and state published guidelines on religious activity in public schools in place since 1995 that draw the line against such school mandated religious practice at graduations does not provide assurance that the future will be different from the past.
Second, since we sent our letter to the Superintendent there has been what appears to be a concerted campaign by some to encourage active resistance to complying with the law – an effort that has resulted, among other things, in intemperate phone calls and emails to our office that validate the concern of the County residents who brought these issues to our attention that they or their children would be subject to reprisals if they spoke out publicly against the active promotion of one religion at the high school. Notwithstanding, the Superintendent’s claims in media reports that there have been no complaints about the schools’ religious activities by people in the County, we are aware that previous complaints about the religious practices were made and ignored, and that the outreach to us was made because other efforts to effect change were unsuccessful.
At the ACLU of Virginia, we are committed to protecting each individual’s right to exercise their faith freely without government intrusion, including intrusion or instruction in our public schools. Our work is guided by the truth that, if government has a religion, then individual religious freedom is in jeopardy – that America is one of the most religiously diverse and the most religiously free country in the world precisely because our government does not have an official religion. We will not stand idly by when public schools forget that their role is to teach tolerance and protect children (and teachers and other employees) who do not share the faith beliefs of the majority from religious coercion by that majority. We will not be silent when school officials participate actively in the exclusion of children, teachers and employees from the benefits of a religiously neutral educational and employment experience by making the practice of a majority faith directly or indirectly a requirement of attendance or employment at a public school.