Religious Symbols be worn in Schools?
Many parents and students were confused, when a school district in Nebraska stopped a 12 years old girl, Elizabeth Carey from wearing a necklace because it resembled a rosary. Rev. Joseph Taphorn said to press that “One ought to be able to figure out whether she’s trying to promote a gang,” he added. “If she’s not, why would she be punished for her right of religious freedom and religious expression? (Haynes)”
Symbols are the powerful source of meaning and ideas. They have different meanings in different religions and are considered very important by the religious individuals and communities. The religious symbols also have a very close connection with the identity of a religion. The individuals believe their identity to be strongly connected with the symbols; therefore preserving these symbols is very important in their daily lives (Renteln 1575). Unfortunately, the United States of America, which is the land of liberty, is still facing with the problem of using religious symbols in schools. Even after several court cases in the past, students are still suspended for wearing religious symbols at the public middle and high schools (Clark).
One of the famous cases from the history is Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District case of 1993. This case was about the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, which was violated by a school district. The Lamb’s Chapel church wanted to show school lectures and films that were related with the issues faced by the parents and family in rearing children. The local board did not allow students with the reason that the film was related to church. As a result, the church sued the school and the that school had violated the First Clause of Free Speech of students. Several other cases have taken to Court but the violations of schools continue.
In a recent case of June 2012, Jake Balthazor, studying at Coon Rapid High School near Minneapolis was sent to the school office by his teacher. This 15 years old student did not commit any offense but was caught only for wearing black and silver rosary beads in the school. He was a Roman Catholic and wore these white and silver beads to give honor to his grandmother and offer prayer to the Virgin Mary (Haynes).
What seems religious symbol to Jake was perceived as a possible gang symbol by the school district that could have been dangerous for the safety of the school. Coon Rapid High School added rosaries in the prohibited symbol’s list after receiving a memo from the local police department in May 2012. This memo stated that some gangs of the area were using white beads as their symbol. Despite the fact that, there was not a single incident of rosary bead gang disrupting school, school administration took a preventive measure in advance to stop any such event. This is not the story of just Coon Rapid School but several school districts have strictly banned the use of head covering, clothing, jewelry or any such objects that represent as a symbol of religion (Haynes).
For instance, almost same case happened last year with ‘Jonae Devlin’ in the of Texas. Jonae, an eighth grade student use to wore a rosary in school, as a symbol of her Christian faith and as an honor of her Catholic grandmother. One day, she was ordered by the school management to remove it or she will be suspended from the school. Her negative response resulted in her suspension for two days. When her mother approached school for inquiry, she was informed that wearing a Christian icon is banned in the school policy. A letter stating that the school has violated Jonae’s First Amendment Free Speech Right was then sent to the superintendent of the school by the American Centre for Law and Justice. In response of which, school allowed Jonae to wear the rosary and the record of suspension was also cleared (Clark, ACLJ).
A similar situation was also faced in April 2011 by a tenth grade student Maurace in California. He also wore a rosary just to express his faith but school management objected his action. He was informed that wearing this religious symbol is not allowed in school premises as it represents association with a gang. The American Centre for Law and Justice sent a demand letter to the officials of the school, explaining that Maurace did not belong to any gang. Stopping him from wearing rosary was a violation of constitutional rights to express his faith. The school responded in a similar way like the Texas school and replied that Maurace was free to wear symbol without any restrictions (Clark, ACLJ).
The Catholic and Romans are not the only ones that are caught due to the safety of the schools. Students belonging to other religions also suffer such situations; for instance in 1999, a school in the Mississippi district caught an 11th grade Jewish student wearing the Star of David. Similarly in 2003, a sixth grader Nashala Hern was suspended in Oklahoma district only for wearing a head scarf which represented her faith. The reason given by school officials was surprising, as according to them, the head cover scared other students (Haynes).
Students in all of the above cases were legally allowed to wear religious symbols after calling lawyers because the 1969 U. S Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines found that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The Court, recognizing the importance of school safety, permits the school administration to sensor the religious and political expressions BUT if school officials forecast that these symbols are causing a significant disturbance to the school.
The school administrators should be proactive and take measures to keep the gang activity out of the school premises. However, prohibiting religious symbols like head covers, rosary beads and other religious symbols with the excuse of school safety is unconstitutional. Schools must not take such steps with strong evidence that wearing of a particular symbol has caused or is expected to cause an extensive disruption or disturbance. If there is no sufficient ground or evidence then the First Amendment Rights of students cannot be denied.
The debate on the issue of allowing religious symbols in schools is increasing day by day and schools are constantly battling to find out whether religious symbols should be allowed or not. The fight of Americans over the religion in public schools continues even after fifty years of the Supreme Court’s order regarding striking down of school sponsored prayers. The classrooms are still a common battle area where religion’s role in public life is broadly discussed.
Several news reports show that many schools allow only Christian prayer and symbols in their premises and put restriction on others. This unfair behavior of school administrators gives a feeling of discrimination and religious intolerance to the students. The school management should either give freedom to practice any religion or should restrict all kinds of religious practices. It should either permit all students to offer prayer in their way and wear symbols or no one should be allowed to practice anything.
The continuous incidents of religious discrimination portray as if no law or policies have been created for prohibiting the schools from banning the use of religious symbols. This banning of religious symbols in almost all states of United States is religious discrimination and violating the rights of the people under the First Amendment Constitution of United States.
Some defenders argue that schools do not stop students from practicing their religions but they cannot wear any religious symbols because schools are religion free zones. Students come schools to learn and not to show their religious beliefs. However, President Clinton made it clear in July 1995 that public schools are not religion free zones. The First Amendment also does not convert schools into religion free zones or puts a condition that religion expressions should be left behind the school doors (Ash).
To put a ban on the religious symbols in schools means stealing the freedom from the young generation that was promised to them by ancestors (Ash). Therefore, schools must not restrict students from using their religious expressions and should allow them to wear religious symbols. However, if school administration finds anything mysterious, then it has the right to investigate and protect school and children from any unexpected mishap.
Ash. The Ban on Religious Symbols in Public Schools. Darkness Embraced. 2007. Published Aug 3,
2007. Retrieved Dec 10, 2012.
Clark, Matthew. Victories: Students can wear religious symbols to School. American Centre for Law and Justice. 2011. Published Dec 16, 2011. Retrieved Dec 10, 2012.
Haynes, Charles. Rosaries, gangs and the battle over religious symbols in schools. Inside the First
Amendment, Religion Commentary. Freedom Education Project. 2012. Published June 15, 2012.
Retrieved Dec 10, 2012.
Renteln, Adrian. Visual Religious Symbols and the Law’, 47 American Behavioral Scientist 1573. 2004.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Religion and the Courts: The Pillars of Church-State Law,
Religion in the Public schools. 2007 May.