Seven months after the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines on the role of religion in public schools--rules that emphasize teaching about religion in history and literature classes, and respect for the holy days of different faiths--educators, lawyers, and First Amendment advocates remain divided on whether the guidelines have made it easier to understand what is permissible inside public schools.
"For the first time, there has been some uniform direction on what schools should be doing, what they could be doing, and what they are forbidden to do in the field of law and religion," says August W. Steinhilber, general counsel for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Virginia. Before the guidelines, confusion reigned on permissible activities, such as private Bible reading, expressions of religious beliefs in homework assignments, and the wearing of religious clothing.
But Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian religious liberties organization, says many school officials are still unaware the guidelines exist.
Tensions between school officials and parents over what is legally permissible have increased in the current school year, he says. "The increase in our number of public school cases has been at least 50 percent," Sekulow says. "We expected our number of cases to decrease, but it has never been higher."
SETTLING CONTROVERSIES: The guidelines, announced by President Clinton last August (CT, Aug. 14, 1995, p. 57), are designed to put to rest some of the contentious issues involved in religious expression in public schools. Controversies over what Steinhilber calls "non-sectarian, student-initiated, voluntary prayer" remain, but the question of whether ...1