Tebowmania and Religious Freedom

This column by Kristy Milligan appeared in The Gazette on 12/27/11.

Citizens Project, a local organization dedicated to promoting and protecting equality, diversity and religious freedom through the separation of church and state, supports Tim Tebow’s right to celebrate God in the end zone.

That’s the thing about the First Amendment. The free speech and exercise clauses protect every private citizen. Religious freedom means religious freedom.

Citizens Project also has no fundamental objection to students exercising their right to assemble, pray, or “Tebow” in the hallways of their public schools, assuming they comply with conduct codes and safety standards.

Amid all this “Tebowmania,” however, we must draw an important distinction between the First Amendment rights of individuals and the responsibilities of government. Tebow, fans and students enjoy the free exercise of religion, but teachers and coaches must, by virtue of their employment contract, adhere to the restrictions set forth in the clause prohibiting a government establishment of religion.  Those who fail to do so risk exposing the institutions they serve to expensive litigation, while simultaneously alienating the students entrusted to their care.

In 2011, Citizens Project received calls from concerned parents, students, and teachers in almost every school district in the Pikes Peak region who wanted more information about how to address issues pertaining to religious expression at their schools. We heard about religious-based bullying, teacher condemnation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on the basis of biblical teaching, assemblies and ceremonies that integrated religious themes, administrative interference in student club activity, and, most recently, coaches organizing and leading students in Christian prayer.

These aren’t isolated incidents.  For every call we get, there are probably ten students who suffer silently to avoid drawing attention to themselves. After all, they just want to succeed in classes, participate in extracurricular activities, and advance through the public education system. Sometimes the people who contact us resist Citizens Project’s help in negotiating the grievance process or initiating an educational outreach to the affected schools. They don’t want to risk becoming pariahs. They just want someone to tell them, “It’s not okay when the person who assigns your grades or decides when you get to play your favorite sport makes prayer obligatory or singles you out.”  And it’s not.

Religious formation is not the province of a public school official, and objections to compulsory religion in classrooms transcend political differences.

At Citizens Project, we won’t rest until every student can excel in a religiously neutral academic or athletic environment that neither advances nor denigrates religion. We will continue to monitor our local schools for problems and work with the administration to ensure they’re in compliance with the law. We’ll take calls about church-state issues in schools and we’ll offer our support to all parties involved, because we know that violations are usually unintentional. We’ll continue to educate teachers, administrators, students, parents and community members at our annual Citizens’ Religious Freedom Institute and offer continuing education credit to teachers.

Above all, we will stand with our students to ensure they have every chance at success through an inclusive and affirming academic environment that allows them to be exactly who they are, whether that means abstaining from the pledge or “Tebowing” on their lunch break.

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