With limits, religion enters public schools

Educators in Lake Oswego and elsewhere allow student-run clubs and say they can’t ignore the Bible’s influence on literature

The 13 Wilsonville High School students clad in Michael Jordan T-shirts, Puma gear and athletic shoes bow their heads in prayer.

Sophomore Spencer Crace, 16, starts this meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes with a group prayer. He’s just learned that an eighth-grade football player at Wilsonville’s Wood Middle School has cancer.

Student Rights

“Contrary to many school officials’ belief, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not require a relentless effort to purge the public school campus of all religious expression. As the Department of Education Guidelines state, school officials must be neutral toward student religious expression. They may impose rules of order and place some restrictions on student activities, but they cannot structure or administer such rules in a way that discriminates against religious activity or speech.”
American Center for Law & Justice

“I want to pray for (him) — I know he’s not doing very well,” Crace said. “I pray he gets rid of the cancer . . . so he can come back to high school and enjoy the next four years.”

The students also talk about how to balance their athletic competitiveness with their drive to be kind and considerate to other players. They pose for a group photo for the yearbook.

The students are happy they have an avenue to express themselves during Wilsonville High’s monthly club time, when school starts half an hour later to make time and classrooms available for clubs ranging from “The Simpsons” TV show fans to Christian athletes.

Wilsonville High — like West Linn High and, starting this year, both Lake Oswego high schools — allows students to form clubs not related to the curriculum. That means schools must open their doors to almost any student-initiated clubs, regardless of political or religious content.

At Lakeridge High, a student has applied to start a club next fall called Students Living in Christ. Another student has applied to form a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at Lake Oswego High.

Extracurricular student clubs are just one way religion enters public schools. West Linn-Wilsonville and Lake Oswego school district educators say they must balance constitutional rules calling for the separation of church and state with rules protecting students’ freedom of speech. Educators also say that in the classroom, they can’t ignore the influence the Bible has had on literature or that churches have had on music, so students discuss Bible stories in English and sing hymns in choir.

The line between church and state has been widely debated recently because the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the constitutionality of reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance,” which contains the phrase “one nation under God,” in public schools.

A 1999 state law requires Oregon districts to give students the opportunity to say the pledge at least weekly. At Lake Oswego High, students can join in while a student recites the pledge over the intercom. Students who don’t participate say they don’t want to make the effort or they disagree with the “under God” phrase or the concept of pledging allegiance.

Senior Becca Frasier, 17, sits out. She said maybe that’s because she attended school for a few years in California, where her school didn’t include the “under God” phrase.

“The moral education you get from religion, you can get from outside school,” Frasier said.

Defining the line

The line between what’s acceptable and what’s not is a fine one, said Randy Harnisch, executive officer of the Oregon Board of Education. State law says public schools can’t sponsor, financially support or be actively involved in religious activity.

The Oregon Department of Education acts as a clearinghouse for districts seeking information about their approach to religion. But ultimately, Harnisch directs districts to their attorneys for advice on following the Oregon and U.S. constitutions.

Questions about having Christmas songs at holiday concerts and prayer at graduation ceremonies are common, Harnisch said.

“The kind of advice we’ve given in the past is that if you’ve gone to a holiday program, you shouldn’t leave feeling as if you’ve gone to church,” he said.

Steve Ticen, Lakeridge High’s choir teacher, said it’s been interesting to see which religious lyrics have drawn complaints during his 29 years at Lakeridge.

“People don’t seem to mind about singing about God, but when you mention Jesus, it hits a button,” Ticen said.

Ticen said the district has stood by teachers’ prerogative to choose songs with the greatest historical and musical significance, such as several years ago when a parent tried unsuccessfully to ban religious lyrics her daughter was asked to sing.

But Ticen said the district also has made changes based on complaints. In March, Ticen was looking forward to having elementary through high school students sing part of the hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” together, but he said the district felt uncomfortable making that the focal point of the concert. As a compromise, only the high school students sang the song.

Studying the Bible

Meanwhile, English teachers in Lake Oswego and West Linn-Wilsonville said they’ve heard almost no complaints about reading the Bible in sophomore English.

West Linn High’s Barb Murray, assistant principal in charge of curriculum, said when she taught English, she sent home a course outline explaining that Bible tales are reflected in many pieces of literature. She points to how John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” alludes to the story of Cain and Abel.

Linda Mihata, head of English at Lakeridge High, said teachers talk with parents at Back to School Night about reading the Bible. Mihata notes that, as in choir, students who object to a piece of literature have the option of reading something else.

And she, too, sees biblical stories of the hero (such as Moses), the loss of paradise (Adam and Eve) and the story of the underdog (David and Goliath) in literature.

“It helps (students) understand where some of these ideas came from,” Mihata said.

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