KSBA eNews Service, Frankfort, Aug. 27, 2013
KDE “strongly recommends” schools bar passing out Gideon Bibles, other religious materials
The Kentucky Department of Education on Monday issued carefully worded guidance to the state’s superintendents on a variety of public-school-and-religion matters from allowing Bibles to be given to students to prayers at local board meetings.
“Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions in this area, including decisions by the 6th Circuit (specifically applying to Kentucky schools) are very clear that public school officials may not endorse religion when acting in their official capacities and during school activities or during school sponsored events,” the agency said in its Monday Superintendent E-Mail.
“School officials who persist in allowing or sanctioning religious activities that are not allowable under the directives of the U.S. Constitution or that mirror specific U.S. Supreme Court cases run the risk of exposing their school districts to costly litigation,” KDE told the state’s 173 superintendents.
The recommendations came one week after the ACLU of Kentucky sent a letter to superintendents, citing findings of religious activities in the state’s public schools, and putting district officials on notice that the organization is prepared to sue districts that fail to follow standing federal court rulings. In that same week, the KSBA eNews Service carried mainstream media stories about requests for local boards to “restore prayer” in their schools and approval a group’s plans to distribute Bibles it had purchased to students.
In Monday’s email, KDE said it is also asking the Kentucky School Boards Association to distribute the guidance to all of the state’s local school board attorneys. “In light of the recent increase in news stories as well as district inquiries regarding Bible distribution/recent ACLU letter to districts, we want you to be aware of this guidance to ensure the public schools of our state are following the federal law and respecting the rights of all students," according to the email.
Distribution of religious materials
School staff may not participate in the dissemination of Bibles or other religious items, but students may do so as long as such activities take place between classes, at recess or other free time, and “so long as the students aren’t simply acting as agents for adults in doing so,” the KDE email said.
“While the distribution of Gideon Bibles in classrooms by either Gideon members or school officials was once commonplace in schools throughout the country, the practice has been ruled unconstitutional by multiple federal courts and is generally accepted to be an unconstitutional practice,” the agency said. “If a district wants to consider allowing the distribution of religious material by outside groups to students while at school, this should be done in consultation with board counsel upon thorough research of the federal law on this issue and with the understanding that the policy will result in the mandated allowance of the distribution of all religious groups’ material to students and no discretion or denial of a request to distribute can occur.
“The KDE therefore strongly recommends and advises school districts to adhere to the complete prohibition on the distribution of religious material to students at public schools (or during ingress or egress from school) to ensure adherence to the federal law’s requirements and to reduce the likelihood of costly litigation,” the email said.
Prayer at board meetings, elsewhere in public schools
One of last week’s news stories noted local boards of education opening their meetings with a prayer.
“Regarding prayer at a meeting of the local board of education, a 1999 6thCircuit court case,Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, the practice of opening a school board meeting with a prayer was held to violate the Establishment Clause (of the U.S. Constitution),” KDE said.
While public school employees may not lead students in prayer or other religious activities, “nothing in the Constitution prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during or after the school day, and students may pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other conversation or speech,” the agency said. “If a school has a ‘minute of silence’ or other quiet periods during the school day, students are free to pray silently, or not to pray, during these periods of time. Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Students also may organize prayer groups, religious clubs and 'see you at the pole' gatherings before school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular student activities groups.”
Educators on the job may neither encourage nor discourage prayer or join students in prayer. “Teachers may, however, take part in religious activities where the overall context makes clear that they are not participating in their official capacities. Before school or during lunch, for example, teachers may meet with other teachers for prayer or Bible study to the same extent that they may engage in other conversation or nonreligious activities. Similarly, teachers may participate in their personal capacities in privately sponsored baccalaureate ceremonies,” KDE said.