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Public schools make room for religion

11:25 AM, Aug 18, 2012   |    comments
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NASHVILLE, TN - At the beginning of every school year, Hedy Bernstein of Nashville sends her kids to school with a backpack full of school supplies.

She also sends a list of Jewish holidays so that teachers know when her children will be absent.

For an Orthodox family like Bernstein's, that list includes about a dozen days off for religious reasons.

"We don't pick and choose which holidays to observe," she said. "I have to say the schools have been great to work with."

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court banned official prayers in public schools, religion remains alive and well on school campuses. That's because the same First Amendment that bars government-sponsored religion also gives students like the Bernsteins the right to freely practice their faith.

"We have a diverse student population that represents more than 120 countries and make accommodations for religious holidays and practice," Olivia Brown, director of communications for Metro Nashville Public Schools, said in an email.

Those accommodations are allowed by federal law and by the Tennessee Student Religious Liberty Act, passed in 1997.

Students can pray, talk about their faith, pass out literature and miss school on religious holidays. But they can't disrupt the school day or infringe on the rights of other students.

Still, one Middle Tennessee school board ignited controversy recently when Muslim students were granted religious accommodations.

Angry residents in Murfreesboro showed up at a Rutherford County school board meeting to complain that Muslim students were getting special treatment from the schools.

School officials say their policies require them to treat all faiths equally.

Officials face restrictions

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said schools can limit the time and place of religious expression, but they cannot ban it.

"Public schools cannot prevent students from expressing religious faith while on school property," she said.

School leaders are not allowed to lead prayers or endorse any religious viewpoint, Weinberg said. The ACLU-TN has sued several local school boards over this issue in the past.

But students do not face the same restrictions.

In Middle Tennessee, thousands of public school students attend Christian clubs at schools or annual prayer events, such as See You at the Pole, where students gather outside around the school's flag pole to pray and sing.

Jehovah's Witnesses skip pledging allegiance to the flag or singing patriotic songs.

Muslim students gather for prayer in an empty classroom or go to the library instead of lunch during Ramadan.

Jewish students and students of other faiths take off their holy days as excused absences.

Compromises made

Most of the accommodations are worked out between parents and teachers, and some compromises are made.

For example, sometimes teachers ask Bernstein's kids to turn in work early or to come in after school to make up tests they missed during Jewish holidays.

Nikki Hatcher of Nashville, who is a Jehovah's Witness, said teachers were generally supportive of her daughter's religious needs. Jehovah's Witnesses don't take part in patriotic events or in holidays or birthday celebrations.

When someone in her daughter's class was celebrating a birthday last year, Hatcher's daughter was excused.

"Most of the time, I would pick her up early from school, but in the case that it was not possible, they arranged for her to do things like be an office or library helper," Hatcher said in an email. "This was fine with her. She mainly felt it was a privilege to help in those areas."

When Salim Sbenaty and several Muslim friends needed a place to pray at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro last year, they talked to the principal. They needed a quiet place to pray for about five minutes before lunch during the winter months. Muslims pray based on the position of the sun.

School officials let the students use an empty classroom that's used at other times by Christian groups.

"We pray, and then we go to lunch," said Sbenaty, who is a sophomore.

At other schools in the past, other Muslim students have been allowed to go to the library instead of the lunchroom during Ramadan, when they are fasting.

But Sbenaty prefers to hang out with friends even though he's not eating. "I am a talkative little guy," he said.

Sponsor stays out of the way

Central Magnet also has an active Christian group called First Priority, which meets on Thursdays during a time set aside for student clubs.

English teacher Chip Barham is the group's sponsor. The club meets for about 30 minutes in his room. One student usually gives a short devotional talk and the students set the agenda.

Barham's job is just to keep an eye on things, but the students are definitely in charge, he said.

Christian clubs such as First Priority are common. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, for example, has local groups known as huddles at about 200 schools in Middle Tennessee, said Courtney Grah, a field representative for FCA. The group is part of a national nonprofit ministry.

Staff members like Grah hold training events for student leaders several times a year, she said, but each group's student leaders decide what happens at their meetings.

"We really encourage our student leaders to be as creative as they can," she said.

By Bob Smietana

USA Today

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