(CNSNews.com) - As American students prepare to return to school during the next month, a national legal watchdog group is calling on school officials around the country to uphold the Constitution in the classroom and not censor student religious expression.
The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.-based civil liberties organization, sent a memorandum to more than 15,000 public school superintendents warning of potential violations of students' rights over zero tolerance policies and misunderstandings over "the separation of church and state."
John Whitehead, president of the institute, said the mailing was meant to "raise awareness as well as fuel debate on the continuing vitality of our first liberties."
The group said it noted an increase of instances of censorship of religious expression by public school administrators in recent months.
Attorneys for the institute filed suit in July on behalf of a Bible club that was not allowed to meet in a school district in Punxsutawney, Pa. A federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Bible club last month, holding that the school district violated both the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment.
The 1984 Equal Access Act prohibits public schools from discriminating against student groups based on the religious, political, philosophical or other content of the group's speech.
Moreover, the act requires that schools grant religious student groups official recognition under the same conditions they grant recognition to non-religious student groups.
The institute also filed a lawsuit on behalf of Rachel Honer, who was not going to be permitted to sing "He's Always Been Faithful" at her graduation ceremony in Winnecone, Wis., because of the song's reference to God. School officials eventually agreed to let Honer sing the song.
Family policy groups also are concerned with what they see as strong opposition to any mention of God in a public forum.
Many school boards feel threatened by potential lawsuits if they allow religious activity in the classroom, said Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women for America.
"Clearly, a public school student can pray anytime he or she wants to pray silently or to meet with other students before or after school, or during lunchtime, to pray together, and nobody can stop that because that is the individual's right to both speech and religious expression," LaRue said.
The Supreme Court has ruled that violations of the Establishment Clause can occur when a public school teacher begins the school class with prayer, legal analysts said.
Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, however, that it was rare to encounter a school district seeking to sponsor school prayer.
"I think that the major issue, when we're looking at school prayer these days, is one of parental rights and parental authority," Boston said.
"Parents are the ones who should decide what religion, if any, their children are exposed to. It's not the job of school officials, teachers, principals or administrators to promote religion before young people," Boston added.
Most disputes nowadays center on prayers at graduation, prayers before an assembly or the rights of students to form religious or non-religious clubs.
"I think that we are moving toward a consensus, or at least an understanding, that school-sponsored prayer is not appropriate," Boston said.
In February, the Department of Education issued an update on what is constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.
School districts that allow censorship of student religious expression jeopardize their federal education funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
As a condition of receiving funds under this act, education agencies are required to certify to their state educational agency they have no policies that prevent or deny participation in constitutionally protected prayer.
"The Supreme Court has made it very clear that neither students nor teachers leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate," LaRue said.
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