Photo by Shawn Byrne.
Time to settle the ‘prayer in school’ debate once and for all.
A few loyal readers and contributors have somehow gotten the impression that Christian prayers and religious symbols are forbidden in public schools.
“Christianity has been thrown out of our public schools,” said a contributor in a recent community viewpoint. “All public schools allow nothing Christian, including a child wearing a cross necklace.”
According to the conservative nonprofit research and education organization Center for Arizona Policy, schools must treat student religious speech the same as student non-religious speech. Students’ rights are not unlimited due to the educational purpose of the school its need to maintain order and discipline.
In short, students do not lose religious rights when they step on campus.
In 2009, CAP worked with the Arizona Legislature to pass the Students’ Religious Liberties Act, clarifying the public school student’s constitutional rights. School officials may not discriminate against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.
Three Arizona statutes protect religious liberties in public schools.
A.R.S. 15-110, 15-843 and 15-1042 protect the constitutional rights of K-12 public school students to pray, engage in religious activities, and express religious beliefs. Disciplinary rules cannot be based on religion, and student recordkeeping systems cannot include religious affiliation.
A.R.S. 15-102 allows parents to opt their child out of any school assignment or activity that conflicts with their religious beliefs.
A.R.S. 15-717.01 allows schools to offer an elective course on the history and literature of the Bible and its influence on Western culture.
CAP’s website has a separate section specifically detailing religious expression in public schools.
The First Amendment protects the rights of students to engage in religious expression and students should not be discriminated against for voluntary expression of faith-based viewpoints.
Public school students can pray, read Bibles, discuss their faith, and engage in other religious activities during recess, lunch hour, or any other non-instructional time, as long as they are not disrupting school order.
Students may express their religious beliefs, discuss religious figures, and draw religious artwork in school assignments without being penalized or rewarded on the basis of their religious content or viewpoint.
If school dress or safety codes permit, students may wear clothing, jewelry, or accessories that display religious messages or symbols and schools cannot not single out religious messages for unfavorable treatment.
Students may start or participate in a student Bible club on campus and be involved with religious organizations using school facilities after school hours.
Kingman school officials were asked about their respective district’s adherence to the laws, religious instruction and clubs, recognition of different religions and if there has been parent or student concerns regarding practicing religious faith.
“Student led prayer is always allowed in school,” said Kingman Academy of Learning District Administrator Susan Chan. “Schools that accept federal money, which most public schools do, are required to allow students to pray in school.”
“We have students who read various religious texts during their free time,” said Kingman Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Jeri Wolsey. “That’s at all grade levels.”
Chan and Wolsey both provided information indicating which grade levels teach religion as prescribed by the Arizona State Social Studies Standards as prescribed by the Arizona Department of Education.
Students begin to learn as early as third grade the many reasons, including religious, for the founding and emergence of the United States and Christianity’s relationship to exploration and colonization of the western world. As the grades progress, so does instruction of religious diversity.
Students can learn the origins, development, cultural contributions and historical significance of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and, yes, Christianity.
Those standards are taught at both KAOL and KUSD.
“We look at all religions through a history lens and adhere to the state standards,” Wolsey said.
Kingman, Lee Williams and Kingman Academy high schools all have SALT, Christian fellowship clubs that allow students to meet for religious discussion and fellowship.
The KAHS SALT Club is all-inclusive and will soon rename themselves the “World Religion Club.”
“We’re here to recognize and learn about all faiths,” said club sponsor and special education teacher Kristi Grasser. “We still hold on to our true beliefs, but also learn about others.”
The club is predominantly Christian, but Grasser and KAHS junior and club president Rayne Archey said students of Mormon faith outnumber those of Christian faiths. Part of the reason for changing the club’s name was to make Mormons, as well as some of the school’s Muslim students, feel welcome.
“It’s not just about sitting down and talking about religion,” Archey said.
The club’s “Prayer Squad” holds fundraisers and educational events to get the word out. They also perform service. Not to proselytize, but for spiritual support. Grasser said the squad regularly visits homeless shelters, senior living homes and Kingman Regional Medical Center “just to remind everyone that they are loved.”
Chan said she’s heard no complaints about the academy’s religious instruction. Grasser and Archey said they’ve never felt animosity toward their personal faith or the club’s activities. Even with school uniforms, KAOL students are allowed to wear religious jewelry as long as it’s not a distraction.
The club gathers near the school’s flagpole for prayer and fellowship the first Tuesday of each month. The morning mingle is in full display of parents dropping kids off at school. The club has had no problems from curious onlookers.
“They’ll just pass by and ask what we’re doing,” Grasser said.
The right to express religious beliefs are intact, and the next generation of Americans is working to preserve that right.
Visit www.azpolicy.org for more information on religious expression in public schools.