TDOE lawyer dispels myth regarding religion in schools

October 01, 2003


A lawyer with the Tennessee Department of Education says she wants to dispel the myth that there can be no mixing of church and state in schools. But she said there are limits to what students and teachers can discuss in school concerning religion, and it's up to local school officials to decide when that line is crossed and if an incident constitutes harassment.

Christy Ballard, general counsel for the TDOE, said Tuesday from Nashville she cannot comment on the suspension of two Colonial Heights Middle School students for their involvement in placing a religious pamphlet on a teacher's desk.

But she said Tennessee schools are required to neither advance nor inhibit religion, and discussion of religion in schools is allowed. According to state code 49-6-2904, a student has the right to pray in public school vocally or silently, express religious viewpoints, speak to and attempt to share religious viewpoints with other students in school, and possess or distribute religious literature in public school subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.

Students can do any of those things if they don't infringe on the rights of the school to maintain order and discipline, disrupt the educational process, determine educational curriculum and assignments, or harass other persons or coerce persons to participate in the activity.

"There are a lot of myths that the students can't read a Bible in school or express their points of view, which is not what the First Amendment says. ... All it is meant to do is clarify when we talk about the separation of church and state, we don't want schools to sponsor religious activities or to impress religious viewpoints on children.

"But at the same time students can still express their viewpoints as long as they don't disrupt the educational process or they are not trying to coerce or harass other students and faculty,'' Ballard said.

Teachers are also allowed to pray in school, read religious material during non-instructional time, and meet with other school employees for prayer. But they cannot interfere with the rights of other employees or students, disrupt the educational process with their beliefs, or harass other people to participate in the activity.

When it comes to discussing religious beliefs with students, Ballard said most teachers prefer not to rather than say something that may infringe on others.

"I think that most teachers are going to say that my religious beliefs are not relevant to this discussion. The bottom line is it depends on what is said, and the main point that school officials have to be careful of is trying to impress a viewpoint. It's such a sticky situation to make sure you don't violate a student's First Amendment rights that teachers are very hesitant to discuss the topic at all," Ballard said.

Copyright 2003 Kingsport Times-News.

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