Jewish activists lead charge against inserting religion back into US public schools

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When Cantor Sheri Allen learned the Texas state legislature was proposing a bill that would allow public schools to replace school counselors with unlicensed chaplains, she started sending her state representatives daily emails with links to articles and opinion pieces.

Perhaps, she thought, she could persuade them to understand why the bill was both a threat to students’ welfare as well as an affront to Judaism.

According to the bill, “A chaplain employed or volunteering… is not required to be certified by the State Board for Educator Certification.”

“They have the right to believe what they want,” Allen said. “But they don’t have the right to impose those beliefs on others. Religion needs to be kept in faith communities, not in public schools.”

Allen’s efforts were unsuccessful; the bill passed 80-64 and Gov. Gregg Abbott has until mid-June to either sign it into law or veto it.

As the co-founder of Congregation Makom Shelanu in Fort Worth, Allen sees the bill’s passage as one more crack in the wall separating church and state. She’s not alone. From clergy to religious freedom advocates to educators, there is a feeling that Christian nationalism has not merely taken root nationwide, but is blossoming.

From left to right: Cantor Sheri Allen, center, with friends at the All in for Equality Day in Austin, Texas. (Courtesy of Allen)

“All of these bills encourage public officials to use the machinery of the state to impose their religion on all of our children. This is Christian nationalism in play because it codifies the privilege of Christian values into our state government and reinforces the status of Jewish students and others as outsiders,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious freedom advocacy organization.

All told, there are nearly 1,600 bills nationwide seeking to insert religion into public schools, Laser said.

In Oklahoma, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School became the nation’s first religious public charter school. Students aren’t required to be Catholic to attend, but they will be immersed in Catholic religious tenets, according to the school.

In West Virginia, the state legislature nearly passed a bill allowing public schools to teach intelligent design creationism. And in Missouri, public schools can now teach elective social studies courses on the Bible.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, speaks in front of the US Supreme Court with Rep. Jamie Raskin in spring 2022 . (Lena J. Moreno/Americans United)

Nowhere to turn

Aside from the chaplain bill, Texan lawmakers had planned to vote on two other religious bills before their summer recess. One would have required every classroom to display the Ten Commandments. The other would have allowed public school employees to pray or engage in religious speech while on duty.

All of this unsettles Lisa Earley, an English teacher at Daggett Middle School in Fort Worth.

“I am very bothered by all of this. When I go to Church I expect to pray. When I go to school I expect to do my job,” Earley said.

Earley, who is also a licensed social worker and head of her school’s Gay Straight Alliance, is deeply troubled that schools will be able to allow chaplains, most of whom lack training in substance abuse issues, suicidal assessments and peer pressure, to counsel students.

“Middle school is a time when a lot of kids are figuring things out, including their orientation. In the military or a hospital it’s a choice to go to a chaplain,” Earley said. “If the only choice is a chaplain, then you are really taking away choice from a student who might feel uncomfortable talking to someone who represents a religion. You’ve just made it so they have nowhere to go.”

Illustrative: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks after signing one of several Public Safety bills at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas, June 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Proponents of faith-driven bills point to the US Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District as allowing for religion in schools. Yet, although the majority held that a coach could say a private, personal prayer after football games, it also said public school employees can’t pressure students to pray with them, said Richard Foltin, a fellow for religious freedom at the Freedom Forum.

“I think what’s going on is there isn’t just a push to get generic religion into schools, but rather a particular kind of religion, which is exclusionary,” Foltin said.

What wall between Church and State?

Supporters of faith-driven bills also argue that the absence of religion in public schools has exacerbated everything from mental health issues to school shootings. Moreover, many lawmakers, both on the state and federal level, argue the separation of church and state is a fiction.

While the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” there is nothing in the Constitution that explicitly uses the words separation of church and state, said Michael Helfand, the Brenden Mann Foundation Chair in Law and Religion Co-Director at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law.

“So the big question becomes how to interpret the establishment clause, and for that we can look to Jefferson,” he said.

In his June 1801 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson wrote that “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Although Jefferson’s words have stood as a guidepost for more than 200 years, “in the grand scheme of things, the concept of a wall between church and state is a relatively new phenomenon,” Helfand said.

Indeed, up through the first half of the 20th century, prayer and readings from the King James Bible were as much a part of public school life as penmanship classes and Latin.

Leo Pfeffer, left, and William Marbury, a Baltimore lawyer, stand in front of the Maryland Statehouse in Annapolis prior to representing opposing sides in a suit challenging the use of public funds to be given to religious colleges, February 20, 1965. (AP Photo/William A. Smith)

Then in the 1960s the “establishment clause revolution” began, Helfand said. Leo Pfeffer, a radical advocate for the separation of church and state, and lead attorney for the American Jewish Congress, led the charge. Born in Austria-Hungary and raised in the US as a practicing Conservative Jew, Pfeffer believed the establishment clause protects both religion and government.

By 1962, the US Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment. The ruling permitted students to meet and pray on school grounds, so long as they did it privately and didn’t force anyone to join.

Biblical decree as push to activism

Challenges to many of today’s bills seeking to re-inject religion into schools, including the chaplain bill, are expected. And as they wend their way through the legal system, the courts will need to decide whether any of these laws are tantamount to coercion, said Prof. Abner S. Greene, Leonard F. Manning Professor of Law at Fordham Law School.

“Let’s say a chaplain in a public school — the question will be are they using the position to proselytize… If they tell students to ‘come to Jesus,’ I think this court would strike that down and say that is a pretty core establishment clause violation,” Greene said.

Regardless of whether Gov. Gregg Abbott signs the chaplain bill into law, Allen said too much is at stake for her to stand on the sidelines.

“Judaism teaches us we are not allowed to stand idly by. We are required to use our voices to speak out against injustice,” she said.

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