Religious Boundaries in Public School Physical-Activity Settings. (Law Review)

By Kahan, David | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Religious Boundaries in Public School Physical-Activity Settings. (Law Review)


Kahan, David, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." (First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution)

Nearly 212 years old, the First Amendment clauses granting freedom of religion have been subjected to scrutiny and interpretation as they pertain to issues affecting students, teachers, and administrators in public school settings. Therefore, instructors may benefit from a current understanding of the law in response to common questions and scenarios encountered in public school physical-activity settings.

For instance, those seeking guidelines for prayer at athletic events should abide by the following legal opinions:

Generally, student-led, student-initiated prayer before a contest is unconstitutional (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, 2000), however exceptions are made when athletes/students voluntarily lead prayers without school sanction, when they do not coerce any individual to participate, and when they do not disrupt the school's educational mission (Anti-Defamation League [ADL], 2001).

* School officials, including a coach, may not personally initiate or ask an athlete or student to initiate or lead a prayer before, during, or after an athletic contest (Jager v. Douglas County School District, 1989).

* Clergy members may not offer prayers before or after athletic events or contests (John Doe v. Duncanville Independent School District, 1993).

Questions may also arise regarding the extent to which, and how, religion may be incorporated into the physical education curriculum. Generally speaking, a curriculum that teaches about a religion without focusing on or advocating religious devotion or doctrine meets the litmus test of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause (School District of Abington Township, PA v. Schempp, 1963). Consequently, secular holiday lesson plans and resources used in physical-activity settings (e.g., Wneck, 1992) that focus on the cultural or social development aspects of religion are permissible. Nevertheless, physical educators must bear in mind the following caveats:

* The responsibility of teaching about or explaining religion must not be shifted to students. For example, calling on a student to explain what dreidels are may make the student feel uncomfortable, signal that the requisite knowledge needed to explain the symbol is out of the mainstream, and possibly invite student response that is construed as proselytizing (ADL, 2001).

* Religious symbols (e.g., cross, creche, menorah) may be used as teaching aids in the classroom, however religious symbols may not be used as seasonal decorations. Certain religious depictions of objects are imbued with secularism (e.g., a Christmas tree) such that they may be presented in public settings, but it has yet to be clearly decided whether such symbols may be displayed in public school settings (County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 1989). Rulings suggest that physical educators should exercise restraint, plan inclusively, and consider the context of displays. For example, a bulletin board that depicts a winter scene of snow, snowmen, presents, holly, menorahs, Christmas trees, and Kwanzaa candles may evoke general seasonal feelings and not perceptions of endorsing any single religion and would, therefore, be permissible.

* Seasonal music, art, and dance associated with religion may be incorporated into instructional settings, provided it is presented in a religiously neutral manner, relates to the instructional setting and goals, and does not focus solely on any one religion or observance to the exclusion of all others (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 1980; Sease v. School District of Philadelphia, 1993). For example, playing a holiday music medley during a cardiovascular warm-up and representing various religions and the season's observances would be permissible.

* It should be noted that secularized and well-liked holidays occurring during the school year such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, and St. …

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