2012-02-15 / Opinions

Religious expressions should be allowed in schools

The two negative responses to the “religious mural” at James River High School show the widespread and common misunderstanding regarding what is allowable in the public schools. In August of 1984 a federal law was enacted called the Equal Access Act.

This law 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.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union realized this, and the above explanation is from its own website. I understand why many people immediately think that anything religious is taboo in the public schools. Unfortunately, most folks have been misled about the original meaning of separation of church and state. Contrary to what many think, this phrase does not occur in any of our original documents but rather was penned by Thomas Jefferson in a letter that he wrote to the Danbury, [Connecticut] Baptist Association, assuring them that because of separation of church and state, the government would never interfere with their public religious expressions.

If anyone doubts his meaning, they need only to look at the fact that on the Sunday after writing this, Jefferson attended worship services in the U.S. Capitol. As president of the Senate, Jefferson had personally approved the use of the Capitol building for Sunday worship services. The many diaries of members of Congress during that time confirm that during Jefferson’s eight years, he faithfully attended church services in the Capitol. In fact, he even ordered the Marine Band to play the worship services there. Jefferson also authorized weekly worship services at the War Department and the [U.S.] Treasury building. During George Washington’s term as president, Jefferson was president of the District of Columbia school board. As such, he made the Bible one of the primary reading texts for the District of Columbia public schools.

We are a long way from there now, thanks to John Dewey and the National Education Association. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

Elaine Hanger

This is in response to the reply from Heather Nees to Elaine Hanger’s appreciation for the mural by students at James River High School. Ms. Nees, you are mistaken to think that students lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the doors of a public school. Religious expression is not outlawed or forbidden, as stated in the “Religious Expression in Public Schools” guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Education, which states, “Students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments …”

This applies to all faiths, and no, Ms. Hanger had no criticism for the expression of any other faith. It does seem to be the Christian faith that gets more attack and discrimination in today’s culture. These students were expressing their values, which go with them wherever they go and, because they are core values, are not confined to their home. America is a place where expressions of faith and discussion of ideas should be welcome.

Cathleen Waagner

In response to Mr. Marshall and Ms. Nees on the topic of the religious mural at James River: What exactly do you find so offensive about the mural? The Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom states, “…That therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, [by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion,] is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right. ...”

Our First Amendment is directly formed from these words, and to deny any human these rights because they step foot in a school is hypocritical and shameful. When did public schools stop being public anyway?

Frankly, … the students’ religious orientation is irrelevant. To even ask the question, “If it were painted by Muslim students with a verse from the Koran and extolled Allah, would you feel the same?” is ignorant and shows how little respect you actually have for other religions. By saying this, you affirm an unfounded bias toward Muslims. The same goes for you, Mr. Marshall.

No group of students has been told they can’t paint a mural based [on] their religion. Everyone has the equal opportunity to express themselves, just as the FCA has done. I’d be interested to see how the students of James River feel.

As a senior at Cosby, I think it’s fair to say very few of my classmates would have a problem with any ideas being expressed, as long as they had the equal opportunity to express theirs. In short, no one is being discriminated against by allowing the mural to be painted. No one is being forced to look at the mural. The mural is not disrupting classroom activities. It’s paint on a wall.

Scott Archer

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