By Gary Mitchell
Federal guidelines issued by the Department of Education in February that ensure schools give teachers and students as much freedom to pray as the courts have allowed have received mixed reviews from educational and watchdog camps.
Schools are scrambling to adhere to the guidelines, issued as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, because for the first time the guidelines have teeth — if schools do not accommodate “constitutionally protected prayer,” they risk losing public funds.
While most of the guidelines aren’t new, critics claim the guidelines may too strongly encourage prayer at a time when courts across the country have issued conflicting rulings about what is acceptable student religious expression at graduation.
Schools that don’t allow students to pray outside the classroom or that prohibit teachers from holding religious meetings among themselves could lose federal money, the Education Department stated in its guidelines. However, the department makes it clear that teachers cannot pray with students or attempt to shape their religious views.
Portales School Superintendent Jim Holloway said the school district has “not had any problem with the guidelines.”
“We have student speakers at graduation, and they have not been told either to say a prayer or not to say a prayer,” he said. “Schools never banned prayer. It was the Supreme Court that banned prayer. Schools can’t mandate nor can they prohibit a religion. I like the clarification. It’s good to get the clarification. We’ll continue the practice we’ve had — to let the students express their religious faith freely.”
According to the guidelines, prayer is generally allowed provided it happens outside of class and is initiated by students, not by school officials.
“We know God’s at graduation whether we want him to be there or not,” said R.L. Richards, superintendent of Texico schools. “Our students have requested prayer, and our students either lead the prayers or ask community leaders to lead prayers at graduation.”
In addition, the valedictory and salutatorian speeches often include expressions of faith and thanksgiving to God, Richards said.
“We think that God wants ‘no child left behind,’ either,” he said. “That’s how our students feel, and it’s part of our community’s expectations for our school — to demonstrate belief in God.”
Richards said the school district hasn’t had to address those kinds of issues.
“We don’t feel we’re in violation of any federal laws,” he said. “Our administration has reviewed most of those court cases. It depends on what circuit court hears the case and how the prayer was initiated. We try to stay within those regulations and be honorable to God.”
Clovis Schools Superintendent Neil Nuttall said the school district has “tried hard to maintain the balance between the free exercise of religion and the establishment of religion.”
“I’m encouraged to see the Department of Education wants us to maintain a balance,” he said. “I think we’ve done a good job of maintaining that balance.”
Students have the freedom of religious expression, Nuttall said.
“There may be students who pray in our graduation — they can sit in their chairs and pray,” he said. “Students have always had the freedom to express their faith. In every graduation ceremony I’ve been to here in Clovis, there has been at least one or maybe all who’ve expressed their faith or that God has strengthened them.”