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The Atheist Academic: I Defile my Question Virginity!

I’d like to start this week’s column with a question from a loyal reader. (I suppose I can’t actually call someone a “loyal” reader when this is column #3, but it makes me feel better.) Anyway, Belinda from Oklahoma asks, “What are some ways of handling separation of church and state issues when we see them in our schools?”

Before I start to answer that question, it’s important to figure out what, exactly, violates the separation of church and state from a legal standpoint. An article on the website of the Anti-Defamation League explains that, “According to the Supreme Court, the First Amendment requires that public school students never be given the impression that their school officially sanctions religion in general or prefers a specific faith in particular. Further, students must never feel coerced by peer or public pressure into adhering to the dictates of any religion”. The wording seems cut and dried, but of course, like many laws, there are different ways to interpret what the Supreme Court meant by stating this. And that’s why you see so many cases argued about prayers at graduation, or banner hanging in schools, or really gray areas where it’s hard to tell if students are individually expressing their opinions or if the school is trying to get students to believe a certain agenda.

So what do you do if you see something going on at your school that you think could be a church and state violation? The first thing I would do is ask yourself, “Is this a student just professing his or her belief? Is it just a girl wearing a shirt that says ‘Jesus Saves’? Or is this something more?” If you’re not sure, you could talk to an administrator or fellow teacher and see what his or her opinion is. You might take a bit of time and do some research on the internet. Has someone else been through this same situation?

If you’re sure that a violation is happening, then you need to take more drastic steps. If you’re comfortable doing so, talk to an administrator and explain your view of things. If that doesn’t work – or if you’re not comfortable talking to anyone – then the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) have amazing resources for you to use. The SSA, in particular, has a page explaining steps to take if you notice a violation in your schools. Besides great links and good legal advice, I was pleased to see that the site explains that you should record any violation so that you have proof later. It also reminds you to have a supportive group around you so that you don’t feel depressed or overwhelmed with possible backlash from religious community members.

Of course, you can always email someone here at Skepchick’s School of Doubt and we can help you decide if a situation is a violation, or direct you to someone who can help.

But as well all know, just because something religious is in a school – and even if we know it’s a violation – there may be a long process before the courts decide whether or not it should be discontinued. Some landmark cases have provided a guideline to what is acceptable. For example, in 1962, Engle v. Vitale ruled that school-initiated school prayer is unconstitutional. In 2000, the Court decided in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that students could not lead school prayer over the loudspeaker. But lesser courts have ruled differently, just recently, about religious messages on sports banners and about student-led religious messages at graduation. Although there are certain rules written down, there is always some wiggle room that religious people try to use to get by adding religion in our schools.

Remember, educators: I know it may seem like it, but you are not alone. There are tons of secular teachers out there who can help you navigate your way through the world of school and religion.

I hope that helps, Belinda. Check out the above links to websites for more information.

Readers: Have you ever witnessed a violation of church and state in your school? What did you do? Let us know!

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Tori Parker

Tori Parker

Tori is a high school English teacher from Ohio (insert cheerleader kick here)! She is emphatic! She is skeptical! She is nifty! Her boyfriend says that they can get a potbellied pig someday and name him Bacon. She has a little boy whose pseudonym is SC, although he has recently asked that his name be changed to Henry. When asked for a comment to add on this bio, he asked, "Why do we sound like a bad '70's cop show?" So there's that.

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