Friday, April 17, 2015

Distribution of Religious Literature in Public Schools

Article can be read here: http://www.religionnews.com/2015/04/16/okla-attorney-general-wants-private-citizens-distribute-religious-literature-schools/

This past week, the Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt announced an initiative he plans to carry out that would allow private citizens to distribute religious literature in public schools. This policy, which Pruitt says would be neutral and would allow all of Oklahomans to distribute material regarding any religion, comes in response to an incident that occurred earlier this month. A third-grade teacher distributed Gideon Bibles to her students at an Oklahoma public school. This led to a Satanist church asking permission from the government to distribute Satanist literature at public schools and from there, debate sparked.

Those who believe that Pruitt's initiative and the teacher's actions were wrong claim that the First Amendment specifically denies the government from allowing public, government-funded institutions to advance religion in such a way. The role of public schools, they claim, is to teach in ways that do not include religious propaganda or messages.

Those who take the other side, like Pruitt, argue that the Free Exercise Clause, along with the Free Speech Clause, allows for any citizen to share any religious material in public. “Under the United States Constitution, school districts can permit private citizens to distribute to students religious literature, including bibles,” [Pruitt] wrote. “To allow private citizens to do so,  the school should simply enact a neutral policy that allows equal access for all Oklahomans to engage their free exercise rights.” The key here that Pruitt emphasizes again later in the article is that so long as the policy is neutral and does not exclude any religion or place any one religion above other religions, then it is constitutional for anyone to distribute religious materials in public schools because they have the right to share and practice their religions in public.

This issue is an interesting one and while it is similar to many of the cases we have read and discussed, it reminds me of two cases in particular. The first one is Town of Greece v. Galloway.
In that case, the Court ruled that legislative prayer is constitutional so long as clergy of all different religions are allowed to come lead prayers. This is a similar case because Pruitt is calling for a neutral law that would allow followers of all different religions to distribute religious materials to public school students. So in that sense, I believe the Court would agree with Pruitt and rule his initiative as constitutional.

Pruitt's initiative also reminds me a lot of Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, albeit in a much different way. In that case, the majority ruled that Oregon's ban on peyote is neutral and generally applicable and thus, even if it burdens some religion(s), it is still constitutional. The law that most, if not all, states currently have in place bans the distribution of religious materials in public institutions, a law that is neutrally applied among all religions. So even though it may burden some religions, I believe the Court would rule Pruitt's initiative unconstitutional. While a case could be made that the initiative is neutral and generally applicable, the majority in Employment Division would likely believe that since the effect of distributing religious materials could very well lead these young students to ignore laws because of religious requirements or practices, the initiative should not pass.

The issue at hand, however, is also a much different case than the one in Town of Greece. In Town of Greece, the Court distinguished between something being offensive and something being coercive. The Court ruled that legislative prayers may be offensive, but they are not coercing any of the legislators to believe in one religion or another. This issue is different because when the material is being distributed to such young children, coercion is very likely to occur. These third-grade students could realistically and reasonably read the material and decide that it is true since young children often believe much of what they read. And since this would all be happening in public schools, which are funded by tax-payers, I believe this would be an example of government becoming excessively entangled in religious affairs. I understand the decision in Town of Greece, but the people involved in this case and the situation is much different. When religious coercion reasonably could occur or is likely to occur, the government must then take action to prevent this.

Additionally, the fact that these students could read some of a religion's practices and then carry those practices out, even if the practices are illegal in their state, leads me to believe that Pruitt's initiative is not constitutional. For example, if the students read about a pamphlet written by members of the Native American Church and decided that they wanted to use peyote since they were so interested in the religion, then the effect would be more and more people ignoring laws banning illegal practices.

For these reasons, I believe Pruitt's initiative is unconstitutional. What do you think? Do you think that if a law is neutral among all religions, it should be passed? Or do you think the issue at hand is an example of excessive government entanglement?

3 comments:

Libby W said...

I disagree with the author and believe that the act of handing out religious materials in public schools is completely constitutional as long as all religions are able to do so. This is constitutional so long as the the material is not forced upon any child, but instead they are free to take any item they would be interested in. As long as there is no punishment or reward for a child taking a particular religious item this would also not be establishment, especially in addition to the school having to allow all religions to do this. I do not think that coercion is necessarily that big of a concern because children will likely not read any of the material, and it would even benefit their knowledge of other religions. If need be, the school could make it a rule that parents need to sign a form for the children to be able to partake in this activity. It is constitutional to hand out religious materials in a public school setting as long as all religions have this ability.

Nina N. said...

I agree with Sam in that it's unconstitutional for such a distribution of any religious material to take place. Even if it is neutral among religions, it will ultimately end up benefitting the majority religion. It may also advance religion over non religion. Public schools are meant to provide a safe environment for education, not to allow any group to promote their own agendas just because it technically is a public space.

Morgan M said...

I agree with Sam and Nina that this is constitutional. I think that it is clearly creating a wall of separation between the church and state but that isn't a bad thing, especially in schools. I completely understand the schools thinking and I agree that it would be better to just limit all religious material rather than have to allow them all and deal with any upset children or angry parents because of the messages that some of the groups were portraying. I think that if people want to learn more about a specific group than they can do so outside of their school time and not where it could be interpreted as a message from the state endorsing any religions.