American history students have studied how the founders of this country escaped the religious persecution of a state religion and formed a new country where they could have religious freedom. The first words of the first amendment to the United States Constitution set forth the basic principles of separation of church and state and freedom, but when the United States Supreme Court declared that blessings before lunch or daily prayers in the public schools violated these basic principles, the debate began in earnest. There are times when it seems that public schools are in a no-win position. Turn one way and be accused of establishing a religion and violating the Constitution; turn another and be accused of violating a student or staff member’s right to practice a religion of his or her choice. Teach history, literature, music, even values and character, but do not teach religion. Drawing the lines required by the first amendment can have significant legal consequences and significant political and public relations consequences in the community which the school serves.
This chapter will outline the legal principles and discuss how they have been applied to the specific fact situations which have been addressed by the courts, especially by the United States Supreme Court. The state and federal statutes which address many of the issues will also be discussed. Where the board of education has options, those will be outlined; where the law seems settled, it will be stated. It is certain that cases will keep coming in the future and the debate which began right after the Constitution was drafted will continue for the foreseeable future.