Rastafarian Mr. Malik Stewart invoked freedom of religion to wear his hat during his public comments at a committee meeting Monday.
Religious freedom advocates and an LSU law professor have called into question some guidelines on religion in public schools published this month by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson.
The professor said the “Louisiana Student Rights Review” oversimplifies complex issues that haven’t been ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court. The critics say the publication could be misinterpreted in the classroom by teachers, resulting in students’ rights being violated.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (Photo: Courtesy photo)
Landry and Johnson, both Republicans, unveiled the document Jan. 2 to address what they say are frequently asked questions and misconceptions regarding religious expression in public schools. Its subtitle: “Answers to Common Questions about Religious Freedom in Schools.”
“The right to religious expression, in particular, has been increasingly challenged and misunderstood in recent years, and many people have been led to believe our elementary and secondary schools must be ‘religion-free’ zones,” the pamphlet reads. “To the contrary, both federal and state laws specifically protect religious freedom and public schools.”
Landry and Johnson touted the document as a resource for Louisiana students, parents, teachers, coaches, administrators and school board members to avoid campus controversy.
The document covers three topic areas: student rights to religious expression, the rights of religious student organizations, and the rights of school employees.
Johnson and Landry said copies of the publication would be mailed to all school superintendents in Louisiana. It also is available online as a pdf.
John Devlin, an LSU law professor who has taught constitutional law since 1986, said the document describes current law with care and is well-sourced. He also said it provides clarity on fundamental points such as school authorities not sponsoring or promoting particular forms of religious expression.
Still, the document has some issues, he said.
“In some places … the flat answers given in the document significantly oversimplify issues that require complex weighing of competing constitutional values, and on which the Supreme Court has not yet definitively spoken,” he said. “It would have been better if the document had explicitly stated that the rights it describes are equally available to all students of all faiths, and not just to Christians.”
The publication mentions the Bible several times, and the Bible is shown in two photos. The word “Christian” is used once, in reference to a religious club’s right to choose its leaders.
The publication presents information in a question-and-answer format. Example questions:
- “Can a public school still recognize Christmas and Easter?”
- “Can the Bible and other religious texts be used appropriately in a public school classroom?”
- “What should a religious club do if a school refuses to recognize it as a student club?”
Representatives of the ACLU of Louisiana and the Freedom From Religion Foundation argue that while most of the law cited in the document is accurate, Johnson and Landry cherry pick and frame the document to promote students’ expression of their religious beliefs.
Both organizations have challenged northwest Louisiana school districts in recent months for activities in which, they allege, school employees went too far in promoting Christianity.
“Landry has made no secret that he’s on a crusade to get prayer back in schools,” said Bruce Hamilton, staff attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. “Students already have the right to pray in schools. The problem is when officials promote an organized prayer. That’s the problem we’ve seen across the state.”
The state ACLU receives hundreds of complaints of civil rights abuses every year, but none from students who were denied the right to pray in school in the past year, Hamilton said.
Parts of the publication are incorrect and fail to acknowledge constitutional restrictions on teachers and staff promoting religion to students, Hamilton said.
“One of the questions at the bottom of page six is ‘can religious clubs have specific qualifications for membership or codes of conduct?'” Hamilton said. “And the answer in the guide (yes) … is not strictly true.”
Sam Grover, associate counsel for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said the guidelines offer a solution that is desperately seeking a problem.
“My question is where are these public schools that are squelching Christian students’ ability to live out their faith? We don’t see any evidence of that,” he…
Authored by Janine Maureen