Church-School Partnerships Decried (April 2000)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has formally denounced partnerships between faith-based groups and public schools being actively promoted by the federal Department of Education. Secretary Richard W. Riley sent out a Religion and Public Schools “kit” in December to all public school principals. The campaign was announced during President Clinton’s weekly radio address on Dec. 18.

“Across the country, schools are forging new partnerships with churches, synagogues and mosques, finding new ways to ensure that their community’s children are kept safe, healthy and learning,” announced the Department in its February 2000 Community Update newsletter. The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote Riley:

“Gravely concerned at the countless, flagrant constitutional abuses occurring daily in public schools, our watchdog group is frankly alarmed at the Department’s special emphasis on working with ‘faith communities.’ Many Department statements and actions will invite only further confusion and increased violations.” The Foundation called on the Department of Education to withdraw its campaign promoting church/ school partnerships, to stop recruiting “faith communities” to go into the schools, to halt its promotion of “Religion and Education Summits,” and to withdraw or amend several publications written or distributed by the Department of Education. The Foundation has “no quarrel with the Department’s decision to reissue and mail ‘Religious Expression in Public Schools: A Statement of Principles.’

” This statement was first issued on December 1995 and spells out the status of court decisions and laws on religious expression by students in public schools. The statement promotes “official neutrality regarding religious activity.” “There are sound legal reasons for paying special attention to the boundaries of religion in schools. We applaud any efforts to clarify the status of the law and avoid future problems,” added the Foundation. However, the Foundation objected to reissuing this policy in a special mailing to principals intended “exclusively to encourage schools to become ‘partners’ with church groups.”

While volunteers are warned not to engage in religious activities or instruction, this campaign sends a “mixed message.” “The First Amendment (and common sense) forbid any appearance of a union of church and state as suggested by the term ‘partnership,’ ” noted the Foundation. “The Department appears to have lost sight of the fact that almost all problems with religion in the schools involve the illegal infliction of religion upon a captive audience, rather than the denial of students’ right to religious expression. “While trying to prove that the federal government is not ‘an enemy of religion,’ our fear is that the Department’s actions will turn the federal government into an enemy of the Establishment Clause,” wrote the Foundation. Contrary to Riley’s assertion, religion per se has no place in America’s system of public education.

“This does not in any way deny students’ private right to religious expression or exclude those who are religious from volunteering in schools.” The church/school partnership kit recently mailed to all principals included a Department of Education brochure, “How Faith Communities Support Children’s Learning in Public Schools.” The Foundation asked Riley to withdraw this brochure and remove it from the agency’s website, saying the name alone entangles government with religion. Although the brochure reiterates Department “do’s and don’ts” directed at religious volunteers in public schools (most of which are acceptable), it broadly endorses churches as “safe havens” and lauds “faith community leaders” for playing a special role in keeping students safe before and after school. The Department brochure publicizes specific church programs, complete with names of contacts and phone numbers, such as a Tennessee church program in which church buses pick up children from public housing three nights a week to take them to church-sponsored programs. “This is precisely the type of program that a public school ought not to be involved in,” the Foundation noted.

The Foundation warned the Department that it might be held liable if children are abused or proselytized as a result of the Department’s campaign. Riley was sent a copy of Freethought Today’s “Black Collar Crime Blotter,” and a brochure on sexual abuse in churches by the Church Mutual Insurance Company warning: “It happens at churches of all denominations and at church-operated camps, schools and day care centers.” The Foundation asked the Department to drop its promotion of the Freedom Forum’s brochure “A Parent’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools” (co-written with the National PTO). The Foundation did not object to two more carefully written Freedom Forum brochures, endorsed by a diversity of religious and school organizations, which were also sent to principals.

But the Freedom Forum’s brochure for parents is “seriously flawed,” the Foundation observed. An example is the brochure’s misleading response to a question on prayer at graduation. The brochure refers only to “divided lower courts” and entirely omits the 1992 Weisman decision by the high court barring clergy-led prayer. The Foundation also attacked the brochure for saying “bible as history” classes are constitutionally sanctioned, for advising that teachers may temporarily post “religious symbols” at Christmastime, and other inappropriate advice. Additionally, the Foundation called on the Department to amend wording in its list of prohibited religious activity by volunteers, including this sentence: “Do not infringe on the rights of students and their family members to speak about religion or to say a prayer or to read a Scripture, provided it is within the reasonable limits of rules for orderliness, talking, and congregating that are set for other speech and activities.”

This so-called “admonition” signals that volunteers should expect students to be engaged in religious activities at school or at school-endorsed events, wrote the Foundation. The Foundation requested equal time of the Department of Education, asking the agency to mail the Foundation brochure, “The Case Against School Prayer,” to all principals. The exclusion of nonreligious resource groups from the Department’s “list of organizations that can answer questions on religious expression in public schools,” was also protested. Only three of the eight groups cited are explicitly secular: “The Department materials and actions show a preference for certain religious coalitions over others, and for religious belief over nonreligious belief, which is unacceptable in a tax-supported federal agency.”

The Foundation drew Secretary Riley’s attention to a number of common school/church violations: the Gideon campaign to illegally distribute bibles through public schools, preachers masquerading as “experts” at mandatory school assemblies, “pizza evangelists,” and a whole host of other recurring First Amendment abuses. “In more than 20 years of experience, our watchdog group has fielded more complaints about school violations than any other kind of church/ state entanglement. We–and the courts–view these school violations as the most egregious, because they involve the youngest and most vulnerable segment of our population: a captive audience of schoolchildren.

“Any number of proselytizing groups view public school students as potential converts. Such groups will flout any rule, any policy, any law and the rights of families and students in their obsessive quest to entangle religion and public schools. The Department of Education needs to proactively fight these violations, not engender and encourage a pervasive climate of religion in schools and their volunteers.” The Foundation is investigating the cost of the church/school partnership mailing and a tax-supported federal staff position of “Liaison to the Religious Community.” What You Can Do To receive a copy of the “Religion and Public Schools” kit and related publications, you may call 1-877-4-EDPUBS for a copy or visit the Department of Education’s website at: To complain, write Richard W. Riley, Secretary Department of Education 400 Maryland Ave SW Washington DC 20202 It would also be useful to share concerns with your local principals and superintendent, and monitor your local schools.

Freedom From Religion Foundation