Religion in Public Schools: Is the Bible off limits in the classroom?

By Rebecca Robertson
Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

If you want to get Texans riled up, start a conversation about teaching the Bible in public schools!  Feelings run high, and everyone has an opinion.  We wish we could say there are clear rules to guide educators when it comes to teaching the Bible, but thanks to inaction by Texas legislators and the State Board of Education, the situation is murkier than it needs to be.

As we’ve seen, there is a constitutional prohibition on government-run schools foisting a particular religious viewpoint on school children.  That rule protects the rights of parents and students to decide for themselves whether and how to worship.  In keeping with this rule, public schools can teach about the Bible if they do so in an objective and academic manner rather than a religious one.  For example, it’s okay for teachers to focus on the historical or literary import of the Bible.  Conversely, schools must avoid conveying any particular religious message or promoting a particular sectarian interpretation of the Bible.

In 2007, Texas enacted a law permitting public schools to offer an elective Bible course to ninth- through 12th-grade students.  The law specifies that the course must comply with the Constitution and that teachers should receive training designed, in part, to help them teach the course in a manner that is constitutional.   So far, so good, right?

The problem is that the legislature has declined to appropriate any money for teacher training, and the State Board of Education has refused to write any curriculum standards specifically for the course.  The result is that schools that offer the Bible elective have very little guidance about how to do it right.

Because any Bible course is, by definition, about religion, schools and teachers need to be careful not to infringe on students’ religious liberty.  If Texas legislators and the State Board of Education really care about religious liberty, they’ll take steps to ensure that any Bible curriculum taught in Texas public schools stays within constitutional bounds. That won’t end the controversy over teaching the Bible, of course, but at least we’d all know the ground rules!

How Much Does Incarceration Really Cost Texans?

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

If you keep up with the ACLU of Texas, you know that we have been saying (for a long time) that our criminal justice system is based on a broken model – a model that wastes valuable tax dollars and does not make our communities safer.  Indeed, it is one reason why we argue that Texas should increase community-based alternatives to incarceration for low level offenders, release sick and elderly prisoners who pose no public safety threat, and stop the use of criminal enhancements that increase time spent in prison.  It is time that we cast aside failed tough on crime rhetoric and focus on real, evidence-based solutions!

In light of a new report that was just released, we stick to our argument more than ever.  The national report, The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers,  published by the Vera Institute of Justice, shows that Texas taxpayers pay an average 23 percent more for state prisons than the state’s annual corrections budget reflects.

Let’s break down what the report has to say:

With our state budget strapped and money being siphoned from vital community, health, and educational programs, this news is very concerning. The ACLU of Texas will continue to fight for smart criminal justice policies as well as transparency from our lawmakers.  Please join us in making Texas a better state for all of us.  Sign up for our e-alerts today.

And, Search Warrants Win!

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

The protection of civil liberties had a day in court today when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the government cannot use GPS trackers to track suspects without first obtaining a warrant.  The Court held that the government violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects us from unreasonable searches, when it placed a GPS device to a vehicle and tracked its owner’s movements continuously for a month.  This case is especially significant because it is the first time the Court has had to consider the constitutionality of location-tracking technology, and this decision could influence the law on cell phone tracking.

Also worth noting…during the last legislative session in Texas, the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee tried to incorporate the exact practice now ruled unconstitutional by the Court into one version of its “homeland security” omnibus bill.  Texas lawmakers sure were wise not to pass that bill.  Of course, we were always against this practice to begin with, but we sure are happy that – on this issue – Texas law follows the Constitution!

Religion in Public Schools: Why can students lead prayers, but not teachers?

By Rebecca Robertson
Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Here at the ACLU of Texas, we get a lot of flak for wanting “to take prayer out of public schools.”  (Not that we mind.  It’s our job to stand up for liberty when others won’t.)  But at least our critics ought to get the facts straight!  We’re not opposed to prayer in school if it’s initiated by students.  What we do oppose is prayer being forced on students by teachers, coaches, or school administrators.

So what’s the difference?  It’s right there in the Constitution!  In our first post on the Religion in Public Schools blog series, we discussed how the First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty has two parts:  freedom to exercise one’s faith (or no faith), and freedom from government intrusion.

The freedom to exercise one’s faith protects a student’s right to pray in school, whatever her religion.  Students can even invite their friends to join them in prayer.  For example, “see you at the flag pole” events, where students meet at a pre-arranged location to pray together before school, are permissible so long as students are the organizers and attendance is voluntary.

But the flip side of making sure that students have the freedom to follow their individual beliefs is making sure that school officials don’t force their own religious views on kids.  The Constitution prohibits the government from telling people that they must pray at a certain time or in a certain way.  That’s why schools cannot have someone lead an official prayer at a football game or at graduation, even if the prayer is non-sectarian.  Schools cannot be in the business of coercing students to listen to or participate in prayer that conflicts with the students’ beliefs.  Only kids and their parents have the right to decide whether and how school children pray.

We hope we’ve cleared things up.  Students have the right to pray or not according to their own personal beliefs, and government-run schools need to stay out of it!

Up next – Bibles in Texas classrooms.

Religion in Public Schools: Could school dress codes ban the hijab?

By Rebecca Robertson
Director, Public Policy and Advocacy

In a word, no!  School dress codes cannot, in most cases, be used to prevent students from wearing religious attire.

What does the law say on the subject?  Both the Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA) protect students’ rights to wear religious attire in school.  The law is very strict: a Texas public school can only prevent a student from wearing religious attire if there is no less restrictive way to further the school’s compelling interest.

Despite the law, school dress codes are often problematic.  In our experience, religious head coverings in school are the subject of a lot of confusion.   Many faith traditions include the wearing of a head covering – such as a turban, yarmulke, or head scarf – as an expression of devotion or modesty.

But it’s not just kids who practice a minority faith who find themselves at odds with school administrators over these issues.  Even kids from so-called “mainstream” religious traditions can be impacted.  For example, although almost a third of Texans identified as Catholic in the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, some Texas school districts have tried to ban rosaries.

Schools that insist on enforcing dress codes over kids’ sincere religious objections may find themselves answering to a judge.  Courts in Texas have repeatedly ruled in favor of students’ rights to wear religious attire.  For example, a federal court in Houston ruled against a school that punished Catholic students for wearing rosaries, and two others have prohibited schools from requiring American Indian boys to cut their hair to comply with a campus dress code.

The bottom line?  Schools cannot restrict this kind of religious observance by students; school dress codes need to accommodate students’ religious practice.

Coming up, one of the more hotly debated issues – school prayer.

United Methodist Church Divests Almost $1 Million from Private Prison Industry

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

The private prison industry has close connections with both federal and state lawmakers and spends billions of dollars to create laws that put more people in jail and keep them there longer.  In short, the private prison industry makes tons of money while acting as a barrier to meaningful criminal law reform.

Through advocacy, public education, lobbying, and legal work, groups like the ACLU of TX fight against this injustice all the time. But there is another, extremely powerful way to fight the behemoth that is the private prison industry.  Divest.  That is exactly what the United Methodist Church (UMC) did last week, and we applaud them for it.

Before divesting, UMC held about $736,000 in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and $215,500 in GEO Group, two of the largest private prison corporations in the world. These international jail keepers have combined annual revenues of more than $300 billion and last year alone, CCA and GEO executives raked in more than $3 million each.

A few months ago, the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society started a petition on that called on the church to immediately divest all of its interests in private prison corporations and instead to invest in organizations that help prisoners reenter society.  According to the letter, UMC members and signatories to the petition recognize the downfalls of private prisons, including discrimination, driving anti-immigrant legislation, and the multiple cases of abuses in their facilities. They believe that profiting from private prisons and owning stock in private prison corporations is incompatible with biblical teaching.

UMC’s divestment is a major step against the private prison industry in our country, and one that should be celebrated.  In rough economic times, doing the right thing can sometimes seem close to impossible – but UMC has reminded us profit shouldn’t come at the expense of compassion, respect, and justice.

Religion in Public Schools: What is all the fuss about?

By Rebecca Robertson
Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Ever wonder why the issue of religion in public schools is so contentious?  All of us believe in freedom of religion, right?

Maybe the debate would generate less heat and more light if people better understood what “freedom of religion” really means when it comes to public schools.  What are students’ rights? And what is the school’s responsibility?

In this series, we’ll look at how our Constitution and Texas law protect a student’s right to practice her faith, even at school.  And we’ll explain why schools cannot be in the business of endorsing one religion over others.

Let’s start with first principles: everyone knows that religious liberty is guaranteed to all by the Constitution.  In fact, it’s the very first freedom set forth in the Bill of Rights.  But did you know that the freedom of religion has two equally important components?  Check it out! The Constitution not only protects a person’s freedom to practice her own faith (or no faith at all), but also guarantees freedom from government intrusion into matters of faith.

Both “freedom to” and “freedom from” are relevant in public school settings.  The law is clear that students have the right to exercise their religious faiths – or no faith at all – at school.  The freedom applies equally to everyone, no matter what faith they practice.

And schools must respect students’ diverse religious practices.  The Constitution says government – including government-run schools – cannot promote one religion over another or promote religion over non-belief.  That limitation ensures students and their parents, not some government bureaucrat, decide whether and how to worship.

In upcoming blogs, we’ll talk about how these principles play out at school.  From school dress codes, to school prayer, to the role of the Bible in Texas classrooms, we’ll look at the most controversial issues when it comes to religion in public schools.