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JTA Staff Writer Joe Berkofsky in New York Contributed to This Report. It’s a Confusing World out Th

August 21, 2002
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What’s old is new again.

The church-state issue, long of primary concern to the Jewish community, has flared up again, with liberal Jewish groups worried that recent Supreme Court decisions are breaching the constitutional wall between church and state.

“If we cannot achieve the results we want in court, then we must wage an educational campaign — that is winnable – – for the hearts and minds of teachers and administrators on the need to accommodate differing views and be attentive to the impact on religious minorities,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

With the law evolving, several Jewish groups are offering guidance on religion in the public schools.

The American Jewish Committee’s “Religion in the Public Schools: A Primer for Students, Parents, Teachers, and School Administrators” outlines what religious activities are permissible under current U.S. law and which constitute an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

“Where appropriate, schools should accommodate the religious practices of individual students,” the AJCommittee guide says.

But the guide tries to explain both sides of the issue: “In the classroom, children are a captive audience and the younger the child, the less likely he or she will be able to draw distinctions between school endorsement and neutral academic instruction.”

Local AJCommittee chapters will make the guide available to school districts across the country.

Changes in the law prompted the new guide, said Jeffrey Sinensky, legal counsel and director of domestic policy for the AJCommittee.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that a Christian youth club had the right to meet in a public school building after school hours.

This year, the Supreme Court ruled that an Ohio program allowing the use of vouchers for private and parochial schools was constitutional.

Cases regarding prayer at school graduations continue to make their way through the courts.

Orthodox Jewish groups want to lower the wall that separates church and state, as long as minority religions are protected.

For its part, the American Jewish Congress updates on a semiannual basis its “Religion and the Public Schools: A Summary of the Law,” a detailed examination of Supreme Court church-state decisions and other court cases, and their implications for public schools.

The guide addresses issues such as vocal prayer and Bible reading, silent prayer and student religious clubs.

Some school districts use the guides for staff training, some lawyers for school districts find the guides helpful and parents say the guides help facilitate dialogue with schools when practices are called into question, according to Marc Stern, the co-director of the AJCongress’ legal department.

The Department of Education issues its own guidelines regarding religious expression in public schools.

The government’s guidelines, updated in 1998, address such issues as official neutrality regarding religious activity, teaching of religion and religious literature.

The National Parent Teacher Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals joined with education, religious and civil rights groups, including AJCongress, to issue its own guide in 1999.

But even with increased attention on church-state issues now, the top priorities for schools are different, said June Million, a spokeswoman for the principals group.

“Right now schools are worried about test scores and accountability,” Million said, referring to the top objectives of the Bush administration’s education plan. “It’s hard for them to focus on other issues.”

The ADL also puts out guides on specific topics, such as after-school religious clubs and student prayer, that can be useful to parents and teachers, according to Rosina Abramson, director of the ADL’s civil rights division.

“Schools use lawyers after a problem,” Abramson said. “We try to anticipate the problem and give advice ahead of time.”

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