MOUNT VERNON — The Mount Vernon Education Association recently joined with the school board and school district officials in sponsoring a “religion in the curriculum” policy review at its start-of-the-year staff inservices.
“MVEA thinks it is important that the staff be informed about board policy and the laws regarding religion in the classroom,” said MVEA president Karen Seward.
To that end, an Ohio Education Association attorney and the board’s attorney were present to provide information and to answer questions.
Steve Short, superintendent of schools, said the session was held not to talk about “the issues that are out there currently,” but to review religion in the curriculum in general. He said both attorneys spoke and gave their opinions about things that could or could not be done in the classroom.
All of the relevant bylaws, policies and administrative guidelines have been in effect at least since 2003, and all are based on the United States Constitution, the Ohio Revised Code and/or directives from the U.S. Department of Education. A brief summary follows.
Based on the First Amendment, district policy states: “No devotional exercises of a religious character will be permitted in the schools of the district, in the conduct of any program or activity under the jurisdiction of the board. Instructional activities shall not be permitted to advance or inhibit any particular religion.”
Purely private religious speech or prayer by students is not prohibited if it is nondisruptive, takes place during non-instructional times and places, and does not serve to harass another student group or group of students. Students may also participate in before- or after-school religious events, but cannot coerce others to attend. School officials may not participate in, encourage or discourage student participation in those events.
Recognizing that an understanding of religions and their effects on civilization is important, board policy does permit instruction about the religions of the world. Public schools may teach the history of religion and its influence on art and music. Schools may also teach comparative religion, the Bible or other scripture as literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries. Actual religious instruction is not allowed; the instructors must be neutral and unbiased in their approach and maintain the prohibition against advancing one religion while denigrating others.
The use of devotional exercises or acts of worship in observance of religious holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, is not permitted in the school setting. However, the acknowledgment of, explanation of and teaching about religious holidays of various religions is acceptable and indeed encouraged.
The district has a “test” to ensure compliance with constitutional and other legal safeguards regarding religion. Each activity which may appear to be of a religious nature or which appears to use materials, rituals or symbols which are usually associated with a religion, must meet all four of the following conditions:
•Serve the educational purpose and goals of the district.
•Be secular in nature.
•Neither advance nor inhibit a religion.
•Avoid excessive entanglements between the school and a religion.