Parents and citizens need to get engaged at the local and state level of public education to protect students’ religious liberty.
- Rob Chambers
Bibles…to distribute or not to distribute? This was the question considered by Mississippi’s Stone County School District when Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), a student led group, sought permission to distribute Bibles to their peers.
A school district staff member conducted an internet search to determine if the district could permit the student-led group to distribute the Bibles during non-instructional school time. The district cited an article found on the legal website, FindLaw, and denied the students’ right to personally distribute the Bibles. The school district said they could only leave the Bibles on a table unattended for any who were interested.
FCA sought legal counsel from Liberty Institute that is a law firm specializing in religious liberty issues. The firm advised the group of their constitutional right to personally distribute the Bibles. Liberty Institute also sent a letter to Stone County School District informing them of the same.
The board, after reviewing the documents provided by Liberty Institute, made the decision to allow the FCA to distribute the Bibles as the group had originally requested. These students are to be commended for not only standing up for their constitutional rights but even more so for having the determination to be “salt and light.”
But what makes this case interesting is all Mississippi public school districts are required, by Mississippi statute (§37-12-9. Limited public forum; school district policy), to “adopt and implement a local policy regarding a limited public forum and voluntary student expression of religious viewpoints.” This law went into effect in 2013. The state legislature even simplified policy development for school districts by providing in the statue a “model policy” to voluntarily adopt or use as a framework.
I contacted the Stone County School District and inquired if the they have such a policy in effect. Despite being transferred to others in the office I was never given a straight answer. However, if the district would have had a policy as they should have, then the school board would have known how to handle this particular case of student-led, Bible distribution during non-instructional time. Their policy would have directed them to immediately approve the request of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes based on current state law.
The Mississippi statute, known as the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013, gives clear guidance to school districts related to student(s) right of religious expression. The law states that students have the right to freely form religious groups, and the students of these groups may:
- Pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression
- Organize prayer groups, religious clubs, "see you at the pole" gatherings, or other religious gatherings before, during and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular student activities and groups.
The law also protects the rights of individual student freedom of religious viewpoints and expressions, and this protection extends also to class assignments. It states a school district shall:
- Not discriminate against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression,
- Treat a student's voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint in the same manner the district treats a student's voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint,
- Allow students to express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions,
- Not penalize or reward students on account of the religious content of their work. If an assignment requires a student's viewpoint to be expressed in coursework, artwork or other written or oral assignments, a public school shall not penalize or reward a student on the basis of religious content or a religious viewpoint.
On July 18, 2013, Gov. Phil Bryant, who strongly supported the bill, sent a letter to all school board members. Records indicate that four of the current Stone County School District board members were on the board when that letter was sent in 2013. Gov. Bryant stated that the new law “simply reaffirms what the United States Constitution already guarantees—voluntary student expression of religious viewpoints in public schools, voluntary expression of religious viewpoints in class assignments, and student freedom to organize religious groups and activities.”
Thankfully Stone County School District reversed itself and granted the FCA the permission it had initially sought. Parents nationwide need to know students’ rights when it comes to the public square. Parents and citizens need to get engaged at the local and state level of public education to protect students’ religious liberty. So many local and state departments of education are bastions of liberal bureaucracy. Thankfully many districts have great teachers, administrators and board members in the public school system who will protect the religious liberty of our students as Stone County eventually did.
The naturalistic evolutionary worldview is vying for dominance in the minds of public school children. Students taking science, biology, and even literature are taught that the concept of a creator God is false. Instead, they are often taught at school that a non-personal process or evolutionary biology is the explanation for the existence of life.
Therefore, it’s no surprise so many Christian youth struggle in their faith after being routinely exposed to a teaching contrary to what the Bible teaches. Many Christian youth attempt to reconcile what they are taught at public school by combining evolution with the spiritual formation they learn at church. They combine the two together and form a relativistic worldview where two competing truth claims are believed to be equally true. Views on homosexuality are one example. Many Christian youth claim homosexuality is biblically wrong for them, but claim that homosexuality is morally permissible for someone else.
Again, I commend these FCA students for what they did and how they stood for their rights. But that should be the norm rather than the exception. Above all else,
Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got! Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.
Deuteronomy 6:5-9 (The Message)