By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

When reporters hear about religious expression in public schools they’re quick to call the ACLU with a simple question: “Is that legal?”  And more often than not, the answer we provide is a disappointing one to them.  “It depends,” we say.
We received one such call earlier this week, when the media found out that a large crucifix and bible verse were painted directly on the wall of James River High School in Chesterfield County.  And at first blush, one might have thought this was a no-brainer— there’s no way a public school can have a mural with a cross and bible verse painted on it.
However, the answer is rarely that clear cut.
At the root of the religious liberty controversies in public schools is the question of whose religious beliefs are being expressed.  Is it students who are expressing their faith, or is it the school espousing its views?  Is the school treating all students in the same fashion, or does it discriminate against some students based on their viewpoints?  And since impressionable youth are affected, is it possible that the religious expression could be interpreted as the school’s endorsement of a particular religion?
Parents and religious leaders, not public schools, should be responsible for teaching children about religious faith and beliefs.  And thanks to the First Amendment, government – specifically the public school in these cases – cannot indoctrinate our children by advancing one religion over another.
At the same time, the federal Equal Access Act protects students’ rights by requiring public schools to allow student religious clubs to use school facilities on the same basis as provided to other extracurricular student groups.  The EAA ensures that schools do not discriminate against student clubs based on the content or viewpoint of the groups’ messages.
In the case of James River High School, it turns out that the mural was painted by a student group, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and is thus the religious expression of students.  Moreover, the school allows any recognized student group to paint a mural on its walls.  So the FCA’s mural expressing its religious beliefs is allowable, and we would defend those students’ right to paint the mural if the school had refused to let them.
While we have spent as much energy on defending the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs as we have preventing the government from advancing one faith over others, we are often wrongly perceived as leaning toward the latter.  Nothing could be further from the truth. We do both, and we do them both with equal vigor, with the understanding that both separation of church and state and the right of each individual to practice  the religion of his or her choice are essential to religious liberty.
For example, we recently opposed prayers over the public address system at a high school football game in Gate City, as well as defended the right of students at that same high school to wear t-shirts expressing their faith.  We also called for an investigation of a Norfolk principal who coerced teachers and students to pray before statewide exams and reminded school officials in Floyd County that students had a right to post the Ten Commandments on their own lockers.
Outside of schools, we have fought sectarian prayers delivered at government meetings, while defending the right of Jehovah’s witnesses not to be forced to sign government loyalty oaths and coming to the aid of ministers who were told they could not use public parks to conduct baptisms.
We’ll leave it to parents and religious leaders to teach faith and beliefs to children.  However, if schools infringe on that parental prerogative and begin to promote religious doctrines, we’ll be there to step in; and we’ll be there when school officials deny students the right to express their own religious beliefs.
Any student who feels his or her religious liberty was abridged at school should contact us at intake[at]acluva.org