Religious Liberty and America’s Schools

  What rights does the First Amendment give America's children when it comes to matters of religion? Well, this fall, the federal courts are again brimming with cases addressing the issue, and the outcomes are far from clear. Take, for example, the case of young Zachary Hood. When Zack was in first grade in New Jersey's Medford Township public schools, his teacher offered him a reward for doing a good job in reading class: He was asked to bring his favorite story to school and read to the class. But when she learned that his story was from the Bible, the teacher refused to let Zack read. Never mind that the story he chose, about Jacob and Esau, didn't even mention God. And never mind that federal education guidelines specifically permit this kind of student-initiated speech. Zack was humiliated in front of his classmates, and after getting no satisfaction from school officials, his mother filed suit. Earlier this year, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty argued Zack's case before twelve judges of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. But when they "decided" the case, the court split down the middle, six to six, affirming the district court decision that the school did the right thing. So, Becket's lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to take the case. The rights of students in private religious schools are at issue in a case on the West Coast. It involves a child who attends the Harbor Baptist Church School in Oregon. The child is legally blind and suffers from cerebral palsy, making him eligible for state- provided special education services. But, the Reedsport School District won't provide those services unless the child leaves the school and goes to a nearby firehouse to meet with a special education teacher. The Ninth Circuit decided that making a blind, handicapped child go to a firehouse for special education was not a "substantial burden," and that the school district could therefore require it. But the Oregon regulation that imposes this requirement does not impose a similar requirement on private non-religious schools, so the Becket Fund again entered the case, pointing out that out that the appeals court is establishing "separate and unequal" standards for private religious schools. Again, the Supreme Court is being asked to settle it. Meanwhile, challenges to school choice plans are bubbling up through the federal courts all over the country. The Cleveland Scholarship Program, which enables 4,000 low-income children to attend private schools in that city, is in its fifth year of operation. But teacher's unions there found a friendly judge to rule that the policy violates the First Amendment, since parents can use the scholarships at religious schools. The Institute for Justice is defending the plan, and their case will probably end up at the Supreme Court in a year or two. And who will decide these cases? Fully one-third of the current Court -- Justices Rhenquist, Stevens, and O'Connor -- are expected to leave the Court in the near future. Their replacements will be chosen by the new President elected this fall. Watch out for what the candidates say about judicial appointments. In the courts, as in our neighborhoods and schools, religious liberty is a vital issue which demands our attention and involvement -- one area where Christians certainly need to be vigilant and active.  


Chuck Colson


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