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There's Still Christianity in the Public Schools?

Jewish public school students down South contend with missionary classmates

By Jan Jaben-Eilon, JewsOnFirst.org, October 2, 2012

(Page 3 of 4)

Jeff Selman, who successfully challenged the creationist stickers in Cobb County Schools biology books, is now the Atlanta chapter president of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Selman is now a voluntary Atlanta chapter president of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), a nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation. When he saw a billboard for someone running for the Cobb County school board pledging to bring back the stickers, he notified the AU Washington, D.C. office and an attorney there wrote a letter to the school district reminding them of the injunction and that it would cost them a lot of money if the stickers were returned to the textbooks. Very quickly, the advertisement was pulled, Selman says.

Oftentimes, all it takes is a letter from an attorney, warning a school or school district of the legality of a certain situation. "We try to resolve issues without taking action," says Ian Smith, an AU staff attorney. Those issues are brought to the AU generally through the chapter volunteers, like Selman, from around the country. Usually the question is whether there's been a violation of the law.

"In the South, religion is pervasive and some people just ignore the laws," says Smith. "My general sense is that it's becoming worse because it's becoming politicized. Politicians are getting people riled up," implying or outright suggesting that there's a war against religion today. "This tends to lead to a backlash and people do more things that are illegal."

Problem worse in rural areas
In rural Paulding County, west of metropolitan Atlanta, the Americans United chapter president is Ryan Hale, a Baptist minister and former teacher. In his opinion, the "religious right has co-opted the Baptist message of separation of church and state. And the problem is worse in the rural area because people don't know their rights and the majority is evangelical and feels they can do whatever they want."

He cites reports of Catholic students cornered in hallways by fundamentalists, and being told they were going to hell, or a teacher inviting students to after-school bible study classes in the classroom, or speakers with religious themes invited to school assemblies in South Georgia or a football coach bringing in a youth pastor to talk to the students about their relationships with God. The latter was stopped after the AU wrote a letter to the school, says Hale who is considered a pariah in the Southern Baptist community because of his defense of the separation of church and state.

Of the complaints that are brought to AU's attorney Ian Smith, "I can dispose of 90 percent by myself. There are no violations. But the remaining 10 percent are clearly violations or judgment calls that go to senior lawyers, and can be passed up the chain for possible litigation. We have maybe three to five new cases a year."

According to Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., the law "permits much that Jewish parents don't like. But the law also protects. Jewish parents are often seeking something the law can't provide."

Photo from "Tri-County GO TELL Crusade," held in a high school stadium in Anderson County, South Carolina in 2012. According to Go Tell's website, the crusade included Go Tell presentations at 12 schools "on the dangers of sex, alcohol and drug abuse. [Go Tell founder Rick] Gage also brought with him a BMX bike team to entertain the students."

Although AJC's Stern reports that he is fielding fewer complaints about religion in public schools, Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project of Newseum in Washington, D.C. contends there is "more religious expression in schools than there has been in decades. In the mid- to late-80s, there was very little student religious expression. However, especially in the Southeast, and in the rural areas, there was still school-sponsored religious expression, even after the Supreme Court ruling."

It was in the early 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down landmark rulings striking down government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Fifty years later, many Americans still hold the mistaken view that these Court rulings prohibited students from expressing their faith in public schools. But the Court did not eliminate prayers or the Bible from public schools, the AU explains. Rather, the rulings barred state-sponsored religious practices, including devotional use of the Bible by public school officials. More recent conflicts have involved differences about the limits of student religious expression.

The Supreme Court addressed this issue in 1990 when it upheld the Equal Access Act that became law in August 1984. According to the Supreme Court, Congress passed the act to end "perceived widespread discrimination" against religious speech in public schools.

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