Newly published guidelines
spell help for schools
___By Larry Chesser
___Baptist Joint Committee
___WASHINGTON (ABP)--While the Constitution requires the separation of church and state, that doesn't mean local churches and public schools can't work together in a variety of ways, according to recently released guidelines endorsed by a number of religious and educational groups.
___The guidelines state that partnerships between public schools and religious organizations can provide students with crisis counseling, mentoring programs, safe shelters and released-time religious education--all without violating the First Amendment.
___Titled "Public Schools and Religious Communities: A First Amendment Guide," the document was drafted and published by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, the American Jewish Congress and the Christian Legal Society.
___The guidelines state that the First Amendment requires public schools to be neutral concerning religion and that cooperative activities between public schools and religious organizations must be "wholly secular."
___While acknowledging that public schools and religious institutions have different missions, the guidelines suggest that "by working together in ways that are permissible under the First Amendment, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, schools and religious communities can do much to enhance the mission of public education."
___In many school districts, "the church is the only institution left intact," said Steven McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom. "Yet schools have mistakenly thought the First Amendment requires them to ignore and shun any help from this invaluable resource. And the victims of this misinformation are the students."
___McFarland said the new guidelines specify that clergy may provide crisis counseling and teach religion off campus in released-time programs. Also, churches and other community buildings "can provide a safe place to do homework, play sports, get tutoring and be paired with a Big Brother or Sister."
___The guidelines say schools may call on a wide range of qualified counselors--including religious leaders--to help students deal with a sudden crisis, such as the accidental or violent death of a student or teacher.
___The stipulation is that religious leaders cannot be the only grief counselors invited on campus during a crisis and that clergy may not otherwise be given routine access to students during the school day.
___The guidelines also spell out that religious institutions, along with other community institutions, may serve as "safe shelter" from threatening situations and provide mentoring.
___In addition, public schools may allow students with parental permission to leave campus for religious instruction under "released-time programs." The Supreme Court ruled such programs constitutional nearly five decades ago.
___Education groups endorsing the guidelines include the American Association of School Administrators, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National PTA and the National School Boards Association.
___The guidelines also were endorsed by religious groups, including the Baptist Joint Committee, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Council on Islamic Education, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and the U.S. Catholic Conference.
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