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Religion in Public Schools

Amanda M. Burnside

College of Southern Nevada EDU 210

October 12th, 2019


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Does a teacher have the right to no longer participate in certain activities because they go

against their religion? Karen White, a kindergarten teacher, recently became a Jehovah’s Witness.

She informed parents she would no longer be decorating her class for holidays or be doing gift

exchanges during Christmas time. White also told parents that she would not be singing “Happy

Birthday” or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The parents did not feel this was appropriate and

went to the principal, Bill Ward. Ward recommended she be dismissed based on her not being

able to meet the needs of her students. Was the dismissal of Karen White justifiable, or is she

protected by her First Amendment right to freedom of religion?

In the court case Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) the court ruled in favor of one being able to

worship as they choose. The Conservative Amish Mennonite Church were convicted of violating

Wisconsin’s school attendance law. The church declined to send their children to public or

private school after completing the eighth grade. They believed that after eighth grade the student

had already learned their basic educational needs. Their claim was that by enforcing the

attendance law the state was violating their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First

Amendment. The court ruled in favor of the church stating that the states interest in universal

education is not free from a balancing process when it infringes on someone’s fundamental

rights. The Amish church in this claim was able to show that the enforcement of education part

the eighth grade would destroy the free exercise of their religious beliefs. Could the ruling in this

case apply in the dismissal of Karen White? If it can be proven that in her dismissal her free

exercise of her religious beliefs was violated, she might be entitled to reinstatement.
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Another court case that could help with White’s case is West Virginia States Board of

Education v. Barnette (1943). In this case the court ruled in favor of students and teachers who

refused to participate in the flag salute. A resolution had been passed making a daily flag salute a

requirement in all public schools in the district. Teachers could be dismissed if they refused and

students could face expulsion and their parents could face prosecution. The Barnette sisters, in

this case, where Jehovah Witnesses and were told by their parents they were not allowed to

salute the flag. They brought the suit to the District Court claiming the regulation was an

unconstitutional denial of the student’s religious freedom. The court decided that making it

mandatory to salute the flag was a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Based on

the courts decision in this case I believe White has a right to not recite the Pledge of Allegiance

as it would violate her religious freedom.

In the case of Clever v. Cherry Hill Township Board of Education (1993) the court ruled

with Cherry Hill Township’s approach to recognize religious diversity in public schools. The

parents of students objected to the use of religious symbols in Christmas celebrations. The

calendars displayed in the classrooms had a large variety of national, cultural, ethic, and religious

holidays. All the holidays displayed on the calendars were taken from a district approved list.

The policy of the school stated that the calendars needed to be used along with a list of books

and other material available in the libraries that related to the holidays. The court ruled that

religion is an acceptable study in school. The court believed that it is important for students to

understand the different religious traditions in such a culturally diverse nation as the United

States. Students were not expected to participate in anything religious and could be excused and

provided with an alternate activity. The finding that understanding different religions is important
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may not help White’s case and the fact that she will not participate in any project or activities

religious in nature.

In the Skoros v. City of New York (2004) case the court ruled that the display of secular

symbols as decorations was permitted in schools. The case came when Andrea Skoros filed suit

on behalf of her two children when a request to have a nativity scene at the school was turned

down. The districts argument was that they did not allow “purely religious” symbols. The policy

banned any display of deities and that their holiday displays will not promote any single religion

or holiday. Skoros argued that refusal to allow a nativity scene while permitting Jewish and

Islamic religious symbols “conveyed the impermissible message of disapproval of Christianity”

and violate her family’s free exercise of religion right. The court ruled in favor of the district

stating that the primary purpose of all religious displays will be to promote understanding. The

same as the ruling in Clever v. Cherry Hill Township Board of Education (1993) it was about the

importance of learning the diversity of religion without being biased towards on specific religion.

White will need to prove that her right to exercise her religious freedom is not going to hinder

her ability to teach in a non-biased way.

Based off the court cases that I have read related to this case I believe the courts could

rule either way regarding White’s case. The case West Virginia State Board of Education v.

Barnette (1943) the court ruled a district did not have the authority to make a flag salute

mandatory. Karen White, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, like the students in the Barnette case will

not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Based off the above case dismissing a teacher on the grounds

that they refuse the flag salute is a violation of one’s religious freedom. On the other side of the

argument is principal Bill Ward saying she was not meeting the needs of her students and that
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was the grounds for her dismissal. Comparing that reasoning to the ruling in Clever v. Cherry

Hill Township Board of Education (1993) where the court ruled that having a calendar display of

various religious holiday was allowed, I believe the court could rule in favor of her dismissal. At

the end of the day when you choose to become an educator, I feel that you should do and teach

what is in the best interests of your students. As one of the above court cases pointed out it is

important for students to understand the diversity of religion. If you are unable to provide your

students that as a teacher, regardless of your beliefs, I feel you are not meeting the needs of your

students. When it comes to religion in schools, I believe it is about teaching them all equally and

not pushing one specific belief on anyone.


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References

Clever v. Cherry Hill Township Board of Education 838 F. Supp. 929 (D. N.J. 1993)

Skoros v. City of New York, F. Supp. 2d (E.D. N.Y. 2004)

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette 319 U.S. 624 (1943)

Wisconsin v. Yoder 406 U.S. 205 (1972)