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Todd Starnes at Fox News is doing what the best, most aggressive journalists used to do in years past: exposing official stupidity and hypocrisy, particularly as it relates to education issues. I suppose I should start a sub category of education stories: things that make me ashamed to be a teacher. Starnes has the latest chapter: 

Christian students at a Colorado public high school were told they could no longer meet to pray, sing religious songs or discuss religious topics during free time – because such activity violated the U.S. Constitution, a lawsuit filed in federal court alleges.

Chase Windebank is a senior at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs. Three years ago he started meeting together informally with his classmates for prayer and religious fellowship. The young people would meet in an unoccupied choir room to sing songs like “Amazing Grace” and discuss the issues of the day from a religious perspective.

But all that changed on Sept. 29th when Chase was summoned to the office of Assistant Principal James Lucas.

Chase Windebank is a senior at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs. Three years ago he started meeting together informally with his classmates for prayer and religious fellowship. The young people would meet in an unoccupied choir room to sing songs like “Amazing Grace” and discuss the issues of the day from a religious perspective.

“He was told that he could no longer pray with his fellow students during free time because of the separation of church and state,” said Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney representing the teenager.

Tedesco is with Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that specializes in handling religious liberty cases.

‘He was told that he could pray before the school day begins or after the school day ends but he could not do it during the school day,” Tedesco told me.’

To make sure Chase got the message – he was hauled into Principal Kolette Back’s office the following day where it was ‘reaffirmed that his religious speech could not take place during the open time’ known as a ‘Seminar’ period.

“Seminar,” periods, also commonly known as “homeroom,” or a variety of other acronyms are generally learning dead zones. They occur because of the changing priorities of education. When all that matters is passing mandatory, high stakes tests, meeting other state and federally imposed artificial standards, and producing data about those things, it is necessary to cut more and more time out of school days for tutoring for the tests, and other pursuits that grab time from classes. The idea of a 55 minute class is utterly foreign to contemporary teachers, who now are fortunate to have 45 minute classes. I’m not aware of the situation at Pine Creek, but if it’s like most other schools, there is little or no learning going on during the “seminar” period, and kids generally sit around and chat, a few do some school work, and most just laze about, doing nothing. Schools sometimes make a show of pretending that these periods are for academic pursuits, but everyone—certainly the students—know better: they are almost entirely free time for the kids, and to a lesser degree, teachers.

Upon occasion, repot cards are handed out, announcements are done, the Pledge of Allegiance is recited and similar school business is done, but mostly, kids do nothing relating to learning. Many teachers resent these time set asides because the time to create them is inevitably taken from regular instructional time. However, teachers also know complaining will avail them nothing. People above their pay grade have made a value judgment that their class time is of far less importance than creating a “seminar” period for whatever purpose.

Pine Creek is a part of Academy School District No. 20. A spokesperson for the district confirmed that the group was told to disband in accordance with state law.

‘Students were told that, according to state law and district policy, they could meet during non-instructional time,’ the spokesperson told me in a written statement. ‘That is before or after school.’

In other words – the only theology allowed between 7:45 a.m. until 2:45 p.m. is the government’s theology.

The school district’s paltry explanation doesn’t make much sense. So I sent the spokesperson a list of follow up questions:

– Why were the students allowed to hold religious gatherings for the past three years if it was against the rules?

– Was there a change in district policy?

– Or was it possible the district had simply ignored their own policy and allowed the kids to meet anyway?

– Why the sudden crackdown on the religious gathering? Did someone complain?

I’ll let you know when the district spokesperson gets back to me with the answers. So far, it’s been radio silence.”

I suspect Starnes is not holding his breath waiting for a response. It would be wise for us, gentle readers, to engage only in regular, relaxed breathing.

By all means, take the link and read the rest of Starnes’ article.

The law is very clear on these issues. There is really no room for confusion. Religion, and religious issues, may be discussed in schools, so long as there is no proselytizing. Teachers may not advocate for any faith and may not lead students in mandatory prayer or other religious observance, nor may they use students as their agents to do the same as a subterfuge to get around the law.

As a teacher of literature, it’s impossible for me to properly teach the classics without being able to discuss the influence of religion. Religious references and ideas are so deeply ingrained into our culture, our very language, it is impossible to teach effectively without acknowledging them.

Students may read the Bible—or other religious works—and may pray as they choose, so long as such reading and prayer does not, in real and substantive ways, interfere with instruction. Little Mohammed, for example, may not spread out his prayer rug, face Mecca, and begin to loudly pray during Math class. Little Susie may not leap up in English class and intone: “Oh Lord, strike down this evil English teacher!”

Likewise, students may share their faith, even distribute religious literature, again, so long as it does not interfere with instruction or the establishment and maintenance of a climate conducive to learning.

The Pine Creek school’s assertion that no student-initiated and led religious activities may take place during instructional hours is unsupportable and not based in the law. Where the school has established a “Seminar” period where regular instruction is not taking place, it cannot deny the activity in which Windebank and his friends were engaged. The issue is not the time during which the activity takes place, but whether that activity is in any way disruptive of the mission of the school. This is the tenuous hook on which school authorities hang their argument.

The students are obviously proselytizing and engaging in religious observances, but they are not acting as agents of teachers or the school. The school’s argument does not appear to claim that what the students were doing was not on their free time and thus lawful. Instead, they are claiming, in essence, that students have no free time between the beginning and ending bells of the day. This is nonsense. Will such meetings to discuss religious issues be constrained at tables in the cafeteria during lunch? The principle is the same. I’m sure other students were allowed—and still will be allowed—to engage in a variety of other non-instructional activities during this period.

The fact that the students were allowed their activity for several years before it was suddenly cut off suggests that this restriction was not an even-handed attempt to be in compliance with the law, but a hastily imposed bit of political correctness.

The students were not engaging in anything unlawful. They were not acting as agents of teachers seeking to proselytize. No one was forced to participate in their religious observance; it was entirely voluntary. Because it occurred during a “seminar” period set aside from the regular instructional time of the day, the school cannot legitimately claim what the students were doing was in any way disruptive or harmful to the mission of the school or to the school climate. They’re making that implicit claim anyway.

If the school, when it first implemented the “seminar” period, had published restrictive rules limiting what sort of organizations could meet, they would have a better—not convincing, but better—argument. Any such regulation would generally have to be, however, all or nothing. All sorts of clubs/meetings would be allowed, or none.

It’s hard not to harbor the suspicion that if this were a group of Muslim students, they’d still be meeting. It’s also hard to see how this is nothing more than obvious anti-Christian prejudice.

The Colorado–and national–culture wars continue.