Vigilance about keeping church and state separate

I’ve received a number of comments and questions about an evening meeting of an organization called Louisville Area Christian Educator Support (“LACES”) held earlier this week in a JCPS auditorium. It’s clear to me that many Louisvillians are concerned about both sides of our Constitution’s provisions separating church and state: freedom from governmental “establishment” of any preferred religion, as by presenting or allowing preaching or proselytizing in schools; and freedom to “exercise” one’s religion, as by praying in whatever manner dictated by one’s belief.

As a school board member, as a participant in organized religion, and as a lawyer and former teacher of constitutional law, I take seriously the Constitution’s promise of freedom to practice one’s own religion and not to have government force any religion on anyone. This seriousness will inform my evaluation of these issues whenever they arise.

As soon as this controversy surfaced on the web, board members asked for clarification of JCPS policy and whether the event complied with policy. Here’s what we learned:

“JCPS, through the Board’s policy, allows community groups, religious and non-religious, to use district facilities after school hours. LACES completed the appropriate application for Facility Use.

We have received a number of questions and comments from the community regarding media reports about the content of the event. To remind our principals regarding their obligations pursuant to the law, we have distributed . . . guidance to the Achievement Area Superintendents and Principals.

This guidance states:

· Public school employees are required to be neutral concerning religion while carrying out their duties as public school employees.

· Public schools may teach students about religion in appropriate courses, such as World History and Literature; such studies are academic, not devotional.

· Creationism and Intelligent Design are not a part of the state science curriculum standards and are not taught.

· Students have a right to pray at school individually, or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive, and such prayer is not organized or led by staff.”

My sense is that (1) policy comports with Constitutional requirements, and (2) we may learn more about whether this particular event complied with policy. I doubt all members of the community will be satisfied; after all, Americans have been arguing about separation of church and state almost since our beginning as a nation. But vigilance about keeping church and state separate, and passion about religion, are vital elements of America. So thanks to all who’ve commented and are paying attention!

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