At the high school I used to work at, when I first began teaching there, I was amazed to learn that one period each day was considered an “optional” period for students. They could take another class if they wanted, but it was really free time when they could clear their minds, get academic help from teachers who were available that period, catch up with their friends, or study in the library. For many students, it was a nice break from an otherwise stressful day. And it was a really neat thing to see teachers (who were assigned to monitor the students) chatting with kids about what was going on in and out of school. What a novel way to build up a great community and establish rapport between students and teachers. (Our district eventually eliminated that period for understandable reasons, but it was still disappointing.)
That’s what I believe officials at Pine Creek High School near Colorado Springs had in mind with their “seminar” period.
According to the student handbook,
Seminar is an opportunity to develop a sense of community; to build lines of communication; to provide community and school services; and to have focused academic time. In addition, students will often have time to access the resources available to them at Pine Creek. These include peer tutors, teachers, counselors, administrators and the library. Club meetings may be scheduled during this time.
(That last line is weird. If Seminar is intended as instructional time, it shouldn’t be used to have club meetings — which are traditionally allowed to take place before and after school.)
For years now, senior Chase Windebank has used his free time to meet with other Christians. They meet in the unused choir room, sing religious songs, pray, and discuss their faith.
Assistant Principal [James] Lucas told Chase that his religious speech during the open time of Seminar period would have to stop because of “separation of church and state.”
He told Chase that because of the religious content of students’ speech, they would have to meet before school or after the school day ended.
ADF is suing the district because, in short, they say the school can’t prohibit this religious speech when they’re allowing all other sorts of speech.
And I have to say: They have a point.
Even though the district says Seminar is “instructional time,” and that’s why Windebank’s group can’t meet, it’s pretty clear that students are allowed to talk about damn near anything they want to during their free time. So why not religion? It makes no sense.
It’s as if school officials were walking up to students in the cafeteria during lunch and saying, “You can talk about whatever you want… but don’t you dare bring up religion.” Certainly, no atheist group would stand for that sort of treatment.
“Far from being unconstitutional, religious speech is expressly protected by the First Amendment, and public schools have no business stopping students from praying together during their free time,” added ADF legal counsel Matt Sharp.
In a letter from the school district to ADF, a lawyer rationalized their decision by saying that no groups were allowed to meet during Seminar (and so there’s no religious discrimination at play here):
… Seminar at Pine Creek is not homeroom time. It is class time and it is considered instructional time. No non-curricular clubs are permitted to meet during that time period at Pine Creek High School. Therefore, Mr. Windebank may resume his prayer meetings at Pine Creek High School, but he must do so during non-instructional time, that is before 7:45 a.m. when classes begin, and after 2:45 p.m., when classes end for the day.
Once again, the student handbook says clubs can meet during that time. But even if Windebank’s group isn’t a club, other students are allowed to gather, relax, and talk (even if the district doesn’t want them to), and that’s why the content of their conversations is virtually irrelevant.
That’s essentially what ADF said in its response:
During the free time, students are permitted to engage in a virtually unlimited variety of activities, including gathering with other students inside or outside; reading; sending text messages to their friends; playing games on their phone; visiting the bathrooms; getting a snack; visiting teachers; and conducting official meetings of school clubs.
If they can do all that, they ought to be able to pray with their friends.
So I’m really not buying the “separation of church and state” argument made by Assistant Principal Lucas. It’s misapplied here.
Because there’s so much confusion, the smartest thing for the district to do may just be eliminating the seminar period next year and making students take a class during that time. I would much rather they keep it going and just remove the arbitrary restriction against religion, but they need to change something. What they’re doing right now is way over the top.
If Windebank and his friends are allowed to get together and talk during Seminar time, there’s no reason God can’t be the subject of their discussions.
(Image via Wikipedia. Thanks to Greg for the link)