Sermonizing for the Assembled
School Administrator, June 2019
Scenario: For years, a local church minister, who has been a strong supporter of the public schools, had a speaking role at student recognition assembly programs in the local school district. When the new superintendent attended one of these programs during her first year, she discovered the pastor clearly was crossing the line in his message from the podium involving separation between state and church. Though the pastor had good intentions, the superintendent was left wondering how to proceed.
The superintendent should build on the pastor’s good intentions by helping him understand the constitutional barriers to publicly sponsored religious speech and the risk to which he is exposing the district by invoking religion in these assemblies.
She can begin by expressing gratitude for his long-standing support for the public schools and his ongoing participation in recognizing student achievement. Then she can inquire as to how he chooses what to speak about and whether he’s aware both of local students’ and families’ religious diversity and of strictures against religious speech. Working together, they can craft a message that is more appropriate and within constitutional bounds.
To avoid backlash, the new superintendent would be well advised to line up allies early in the process. She might reach out to school board members, other prominent supporters of the district such as local business owners or the editor of the local newspaper and influential members of the district leadership team, school administration and PTAs.
While the principle of separation of church and state is clear, what does or does not cross the line is often murky. In this case, the pastor’s opinion may be that he did not cross the line but was merely espousing important ethical values whereas in the superintendent’s opinion the line was crossed.
Before taking any action, the superintendent should consult the district’s attorney and accurately quote the pastor’s remarks. Based on the attorney’s advice, she should meet with the pastor face to face to express her concern, share the attorney’s opinion and, if appropriate, request the pastor temper his message the next time he speaks. She also needs to inform her school board so there are no surprises if the pastor disagrees with the superintendent and chooses to contact a board member or makes a public comment.
As in most situations where there is a difference of perceptions in how communication should flow, the best place to begin is with an honest and direct conversation between the superintendent and the pastor.
It will be important for the superintendent to approach the conversation from a position of information sharing and clarification specific to separation of church and state as opposed to accusation. The superintendent should point out examples of comments the pastor made, focusing on the value of his encouragement of students, while being clear that in the future his comments need to stay within the boundaries of the law.
It will take all the relational skills the superintendent possesses to convey to the pastor that her intent is not to criticize him but rather to make sure his comments realign and focus on inspiring and congratulating students without crossing the line and offering a religious message. Hopefully the conversation will cause the pastor to rethink his comments. Otherwise, the superintendent will have to reconsider the pastor’s role at these assemblies.
Although the pastor had good intentions and is a strong supporter of the public schools, the superintendent has a responsibility to ensure his presentation doesn’t introduce either prayer or religion in a way that violates the separation of church and state. The introduction of prayer or religion in the student recognition assembly can constitute a state-sponsored exercise of religion at a school event.
That the pastor’s speech may represent the dominant religious culture of the community and appear acceptable to many makes it even more important that the superintendent protect the religious liberty of others and the non-sectarian role of public education by pursuing a non-sectarian approach to honoring student achievement.
It is the responsibility of the superintendent to ensure and protect the rights and religious liberty of all individuals. Her perception that the pastor’s speech was an infringement on the Constitution’s separation of church and state should be sufficient to open a conversation about this with the pastor and her school board and change the program for future assemblies so that other community leaders, including religious leaders representing different faiths, offer their remarks in a non-sectarian way.
As a leader for students, staff and the community, the superintendent is responsible for creating a safe space for individuals of all faiths as well as atheists. The separation of church and state is one of the core principles that guide our democracy and our public institutions. Even though the minister’s speech may seem innocuous to many, it undermines the authority vested in school leaders to uphold the Constitution.
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in the Engel v. Vitale decision in 1962 that “one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the government's placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious service. … The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the federal government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say … .”
It is critical that school leaders and the community at large appreciate this responsibility and address situations in ways that ensure our religious liberty rights.
Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances
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The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.