Image via WikipediaThe ADL gave a workshop to principals and directors of Indiana's Washington Township schools on what is and isn't OK for public schools to do in regards to religious display and participation. The ADL is a religious organization committed to stopping the defamation of the Jewish people they are also committed to securing justice and fair treatment of all. Despite being a religious organization they conducted what appears to be a genuinely secular training and of great value. Where are these trainings in other parts of the country? Why can't Christian groups provide this training? Read Robert King's article in the Indy Star about the session. There are some obviously common sense situations described and some that are less obvious.
Religion in public schools is focus of Washington Twp. session
Washington Twp. session explains how courts have ruled in various scenarios
What would you do, as a public school principal, if some former Colts players want to give a strong anti-drug message to your student body, but the presentation will be heavily steeped in a Christian evangelistic message?What would be your response to an organization that wants to stage a prayer gathering in front of the school flagpole before classes begin?
And, with the holidays approaching, here's one to consider: What place do Christmas carols such as "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger" -- tunes that go beyond enchanted snowmen and winter wonderlands -- have in December school showcases?
These are some of the questions Washington Township school leaders discussed recently during a special training program aimed at helping them respect the religious diversity of their students while also avoiding lawsuits.
The nearly two-hour program, called "The Challenge of Religion in the Public Schools," was sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, which is providing the training around the country and hopes to offer it to more Central Indiana schools. About 30 principals and directors serving nearly 10,000 Washington Township students attended.
The ADL is a civil-rights organization traditionally known for its opposition to discrimination and bigotry against the Jewish people. But it is also concerned about protecting religious freedom, said Clare Pinkert, an ADL attorney who led the training.
"We think that the best way to protect religious freedom is to make sure that government and religion don't interfere with one another," she said. "We think that today, with the extraordinary diversity of religious practice, it is particularly important to ensure that government is not showing favoritism to one group over another."
The ADL doesn't sue public school districts, Pinkert said, when they cross the established lines between church and state. Instead, it tries to work with schools. But the group's training program is intended to show school leaders what the courts have said when it comes to mixing religion and public education.
At Washington Township, Pinkert said she encountered a principal who opted against the visit from the Colts players because their anti-drug message had a strong evangelistic bent -- a no-no for a required school assembly. That principal, Pinkert said, did the right thing.The flagpole prayer circle before school? That would be OK, Pinkert said, so long as it was student-initiated and student-led and "there's no coercion of students who don't wish to participate."
One caution: Such a ceremony may not be advisable at elementary schools, Pinkert said, because younger students may have a harder time distinguishing between a teacher as an authority figure and a teacher participating on his or her own behalf.
"It could lead to an appearance of the endorsement of religion."
And what about the religious Christmas carols? Not a good idea, Pinkert said. Students shouldn't be compelled to sing songs that may have lyrics that profess a belief they do not share.
"We're not in the war against Christmas by any means," she said. "But there is a real difference between talking about the history of the holiday and the culture and actually encouraging students to celebrate when they are in the taxpayer-funded, government-controlled arena."
Washington Township Schools Superintendent James Mervilde said the training on matters pertaining to religion in the schools is valuable given the religious diversity in his district, including a significant Jewish population.
Mervilde said he understands that some people aren't bothered by blatantly religious Christian messages in schools and that they might prefer it. But he said that is the realm of religious schools, not public ones.
"Frankly, helping children to understand that it is a diverse world -- and that learning how to live in that kind of world is a set of skills -- is a core curriculum in Washington Township and always has been," Mervilde said.
But Mervilde said he also rejects what he calls the "straw man" argument that some people raise -- the notion that schools forbid prayer.
"I'm telling you that we can't lead that prayer," he said. "Your child, probably like a lot of people, does pray in school. We have teachers who pray in school. Even superintendents pray in school. But they don't organize prayer."