ACLU’s ‘Religious Freedom’ Campaign Aims to Keep Religion Out of S.C. Public Schools

By Jon Street | September 11, 2012 | 6:06 AM EDT

A 1966 photo of first graders praying in a South Carolina public school. (AP Photo)

( - The South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has launched a campaign to “strengthen religious freedom” in the state’s public schools.

But the emphasis is on what students may not do.

The initiative, “Religious Freedom Goes to School,” follows a growing number of complaints about religious activity in public schools, the ACLU said.

In the last two years, the ACLU and its South Carolina chapter say they’ve received complaints about in-class prayers led by teachers; Bible distribution to students; prayer and scriptural readings at graduations and school assemblies; coach-led prayer at football practices; and school officials leading or participating in student religious clubs.

Such activities violate the Constitution, the ACLU says.

The “Religious Freedom” campaign “aims to protect and strengthen the religious freedom rights of all students, regardless of faith or belief,” an ACLU spokesman said.

“We will defend the rights of students to exercise and express their beliefs by praying, reading religious materials, or engaging in other religious activities during student activity times (like recess or lunch), provided that they do not cause a disruption or interfere with the education of other students.”

But conservatives see it differently.

Erin Leu, a spokesperson for Liberty Institute, said the ACLU’s “Religious Freedom” campaign seems to lean in one direction: “One thing I noticed about the campaign is that there is a heavy focus on what the school cannot do and there’s less of a focus on what the students can do for their religious rights…I wish there was more of an emphasis on the religious rights of students.”

“[The ACLU] claims neutrality, but they want a state that’s secular and opposed to the inclusion of theistic messages,” Chris Gacek of the Family Research Council told

“I think it represents part of an ongoing process in various ways for organizations with left-wing ideologies to exert influence and control…to gain power over the way schools are administered,” he added.

The ACLU states that religious freedom “includes the right to hold and exercise religious beliefs” – as long as schools “do not impose or promote religion during school events.”

“Students should be able to decide what faith, if any, to follow, without the influence or coercion of school officials,” the group said.

Responding to the ACLU’s statement, Gacek said, “I don’t think anyone’s talking about establishment of religion…you know, turning public schools into churches.”

The Liberty Institute is trying to “stop the widespread assault” on religious freedom in public schools with the launch of its Angela Project, which includes the distribution of “Know Your Religious Rights” kits to students and parents.

The project is named for Angela Hildenbrand, the valedictorian of her class at Medina Valley High School in Castroville, Texas, who was told she could not say words such as “Lord,” “in Jesus name,” or “Amen” in her graduation speech prayer after an agnostic classmate filed a lawsuit in district court.

But a fifth circuit appeals court judge reversed that ruling and Hildenbrand was able to pray openly during her graduation speech.