Public Education Policy
AAI supports clear guidelines for separation of religion and government in all areas of public education. No taxpayer funds should be used to support religious schools, and religious doctrine should not be taught in public school classes.
Opponents of the separation of church and state try to influence education policy in several areas:
1) Science in the classroom
Public schools need to adopt a curriculum that is approved by the scientific community. The Kitzmiller v. Dover case clearly established that Intelligent Design is not science and should not be taught in science class. Public education should never display any bias toward religion.
Prayer should follow established Federal guidelines for public schools (K – university). No public employee should lead or endorse prayer in the public schools. Prayer should be a private matter and not involved in any ceremony or activity promoted by a public school. Collective prayer is always coercive for elementary and high school students. A mandated moment of silence is only a thinly veiled collective prayer.
Special accommodations for religious exercise should only be made that do not unduly burden the school budget or infringe upon compelling state interests such as maintaining an adequate educational schedule. In the event that a public school should designate a room for prayer, meditation, or silence, the room should not be used for proselytizing. Anyone using the room should do so in silence when others of a different belief system are present. No symbols, books, or literature should be permanently displayed in the room. The room should not promote any religion over any other, nor religion over non-religion.
3) Sex education in public school
Public schools should provide a sex education curriculum that is consistent with the research on what is effective and helpful to the health of students. An abstinence-only program that is taught with a religious motivation violates separation. Abstinence may be advocated only in conjunction with instruction in safe prophylactic practices. The purpose of sex education is to enable the students to make intelligent decisions in their sexual conduct, and censoring factual information can only contradict that purpose.
4) Religious activities in public schools
In 1990, in the case Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Access Act, which permitted public school students to form religious clubs that meet during non-instructional time if they permit secular clubs, was constitutional. The Court ruled in 2001 in the case Good News Club v. Milford Central School that if public schools rent out rooms to secular groups that they must rent them to religious groups on the same terms. In both cases, the court ruled that public schools may not discriminate against groups on the basis of religious content. Earlier courts came to contrary rulings by applying the Lemon Test.
AAI supports use of the Lemon Test as the governing standard for identifying violations of the Establishment Clause. However, even accepting the decisions in the Westside and Milford cases, public schools must still take care to avoid violating the First Amendment. Rooms should be rented to religious groups at the same rate applied to secular groups, and compliance must be strictly audited. No student or staff member may be required to participate in any religious activity. There may be no religious indoctrination during instructional time. Faculty may not promote or recruit for religious Equal Access Clubs or for outside religious groups meeting on school grounds, as this would give the appearance official endorsement. All school-sponsored activities must avoid in act and appearance promoting religion.
AAI opposes the practice of religious release time.
5) Teaching comparative religion and texts
All instruction about religion in public schools is of particular concern because it runs the risk of improperly influencing the beliefs of impressionable young people. Comparative religion and religious texts (Bible, Koran, etc.) may be taught only if presented in an unbiased manner with text material that clearly has no presentation bias. Advocacy, whether religious or atheistic, must be strictly avoided, even by outside presenters. The public school must counteract the bias that may appear in such classes by performing a close scrutiny of the materials used and of the instructor. A survey of world religions should include atheism and other non theistic worldviews.
Public funds, even where given to the parent to spend, should not be used to pay for education at religious schools. Funding school programs that include religious activity makes it difficult if not impossible to separate the funding of religious from nonreligious instruction. It is therefore our policy that public money should not be used in any payment to attend a religious school, either by voucher, scholarship, tuition tax credit or any other scheme.
7) Academic Freedom
Academic freedom should be a guideline for the presentation of material within the public school system (K – University). The guideline for academic freedom should be defined by the professional societies in that discipline. Academic freedom does not give a license to teach lies as truth, faith as fact, myth as science, or material not endorsed by sound educational practice. Education should teach critical thinking and not dogma.
8) Charter Schools
Charter schools are publicly financed schools designed for a specific need or curriculum. They should be bound by the same rules ensuring separation of church and state as conventional public schools. Even if the students of a charter school are of a single religion, the school must not be used as a vehicle of religious instruction. No school should be housed on the same grounds as a house of worship, and when school employees have church offices, there must be a clear delineation of responsibilities.