Schools struggle with limits of religion

Mornings at Mukwonago High School for student Catherine Mortimer begin with a prayer - whether she has a test that day or not.

The Law

Religious groups can use public school facilities if secular groups also are allowed to meet.

Students can express their religious views in class lessons, leave their buildings for religious instruction, and pray individually or in student-led groups.

At 6:30 a.m., she attends seminary classes for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a second-floor room at the school. There in a Spartan classroom with white walls and clean blackboards, the students - mostly Mormon - pray, study Scripture and offer devotional thoughts.

"Coming to seminary sets the tone for the whole day, and it gives you knowledge," said Mortimer, a sophomore who had to attend church in Wales for such lessons before this school year. "So if someone asks you about the church, you can answer."

Such Bible classes and prayer groups - before school, after school or during lunch - are common in many Wisconsin school districts. And they show how, now more than ever, putting the word "public" before school doesn't mean taking religion out.

But public school officials, students and their parents still struggle to navigate constitutional waters with constantly changing currents and a long-standing question: What constitutes enough accommodation of students' religious beliefs, and what is too much?

"It is such a minefield," said Sarah Jerome, superintendent of the Kettle Moraine School District in Waukesha County.

"So many school districts have had difficulties in handling the arrays of freedoms that are included in this - the freedom to express, religious freedom or religious expressions as well as, on the other end of the spectrum, freedom from religion, freedom from being harassed or coerced or proselytized."

Kettle Moraine has been accused of transgressions on both sides.

In 1998, the Freedom From Religion Foundation accused the district of violating the Constitution by allowing a Catholic church to hold a pre-prom Mass for students at its high school.

In March, the district faced altogether different charges when a religious liberty group filed a lawsuit on behalf of a second-grader who was not allowed to distribute religious valentines.

"We have wanted to do the right thing," Jerome said. "There was never an intention, either in '98 when we were doing the pre-prom Mass or currently, a determination - 'Oh, here we can violate somebody's rights, let's jump in and do it' - as some of the talk-radio shows have implied."

Under the law, religious groups can use public school facilities if secular groups also are allowed to meet. Students can express their religious views in class lessons, leave their buildings for religious instruction, and pray individually or in student-led groups.

Bible clubs or prayer groups meet regularly in public school buildings, although not during the school day. Some districts, such as Kettle Moraine, allow ministers to talk with students during lunch. And Mukwonago High School has religious baccalaureate services on campus for graduating students and offers a Bible as Literature course.

But can religious activities be advertised in announcements or posters at school? Does equal access apply, as is argued in a lawsuit on appeal against the Kenosha Unified School District, to a Bible club that asked to paint a cross on a school mural?

It has been more than 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down religious instruction in public schools and a full century since the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared of religion: "Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed."

But lawsuits and disputes over religion in schools still abound in communities and in courtrooms.

Although he knows the student Bible club can legally meet, Menomonee Falls High School Principal Richard Woosencraft admits he's uncomfortable having those sessions in the building.

His discomfort may have been influenced by growing up non-Catholic in highly Catholic Green Bay, he said.

"I think I was 12 before I knew I wasn't going to hell because I wasn't Catholic, as all my friends told me," he said. "And, I guess, that's how powerful it can be."

In Kettle Moraine, Jerome said some of the district's problems with religion stem from interest groups that are looking to make a media splash for their cause.

But religious organizations say schools have misinterpreted court rulings and are trampling on students' constitutional rights.

"Many public school administrators believe that the safest route is the route of censorship, and that is an impermissible approach to take," said Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of the Liberty Counsel, a religious liberty organization that has sued the Racine, Kenosha and Kettle Moraine school districts over such issues.

Lawyers and constitutional experts lay blame on the Constitution's First Amendment, with its sometimes conflicting precepts forbidding the governmental establishment of religion and its guarantees of the free exercise of religion.

When conflicts arise, that leaves the courts to sort them out, and in recent years the courts have been siding with allowing more religious activity.

As a result, school districts have had to take pains to monitor court decisions to ensure that their practices match up.

Only last year, the West Bend School District changed its policies to make it clear that outside groups - religious or otherwise - can use school buildings for their meetings, and they can make activity fliers and other information available to students as long as they include disclaimers.

Previously, schools in the district weren't as accommodating, Superintendent Michael Wiziarde said.

"The old understanding was essentially that this notion of church and state precluded schools from distributing this material," Wiziarde said. "But this clearly has not been the case" in the courts' views.

Reaction to religious groups varies, said Rick Mathison, state director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which has chapters in 90 schools.

It's not often that the interdenominational, student-led FCA groups see resistance, he said.

When they do, however, he said: "They might not let them make announcements, even though other groups can make announcements. They don't get full recognition as a club."

But Jana Boschi, a seminary teacher with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said she had no problem getting approval to use a Mukwonago High School classroom for her Mormon pupils.

Her students say they haven't faced discrimination from classmates, teachers or administrators, although some of their friends think they're crazy to get up so early for church lessons.

Senior Michael Christiansen said his brother once got a "C" on a paper because a teacher didn't like a reference he made to God.

But sometimes schools can be too accommodating, coming perilously close to endorsing religion, said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.

"It's an emotional issue, and it's something that people literally believe in one way or the other. And they feel that they're fulfilling a mission almost to have religion in the schools," he said.