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Posted 14 May 2001   For week ended May 11, 2001
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Sent on Mormon-News: 10May01

By Kent Larsen

LDS Seminaries in Middle of Church-in-School Debate

MILWUAKEE, WISCONSIN -- An article in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reviews the current place of religion in the public schools and in the process looks at an LDS Seminary Class. Like a multitude of religious activities that are sometimes found in high schools, the LDS Seminary program sometimes finds itself squarely in the middle of the debate, which often pits conservatives and liberals in the US against each other on school boards and in legislatures, but almost always gets decided in the courts as foes cite conflicting principles of the US Constitution's first amendment.

The Journal-Sentinel cites an LDS seminary class at Mukwonago High School as an example. The class meets at 6:30 am in the high school, which is permitted because the law gives religious groups access to the school on the same basis as other groups. Teacher Jana Boschi says getting approval to use the school was not a problem, and her students say that they haven't experienced discrimination from their peers. And, they say, the class helps them approach their day. "Coming to seminary sets the tone for the whole day, and it gives you knowledge," says Catherine Mortimer, a sophomore who had to attend go to an LDS chapel in Wales for seminary before Boschi was able to get access to the school. "So if someone asks you about the church, you can answer."

But the use of schools by religious groups has been controversial, despite court rulings that make it legal. After the US Supreme Court struck down religious instruction in the public schools more than 50 years ago, it was generally assumed that religious groups couldn't use school facilities. "The old understanding was essentially that this notion of church and state precluded schools from distributing this material," says West Bend School District Superintendent Michael Wiziards. But the courts have since made it clear that this is wrong also, that religious groups have a right to use the facilities on the same basis as non-religious groups do. The law also allows students to express religious views in class lessons, leave the school building for religious instruction, and pray individually and in student-led groups.

But Sarah Jerome, Superintendent of the Moraine School District in Waukesha county, Wisconsin, says these principles hide a minefield of possibilities that often get the districts in trouble. "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." Her district has been accused of erring both in favor of religion and of erring against religion. In 1998 the Freedom From Religion Foundation said the district shouldn't have allowed a Catholic pre-prom Mass on school grounds. Then, last month, the district was accused of violating a student's rights by not allowing the second-grader 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."

But some religious organizations say that school districts go too far. "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. His group has sued Wisconsin school districts in Racine, Kenosha and Kettle Moraine over religious freedom.

Meanwhile, Mormons have sometimes faced these issues from both sides. In Utah, where LDS students are released from school to attend Seminary in buildings located near the schools, non-Mormons have accused the schools of supporting the Mormon majority and allowing too much religion in the classroom. Meanwhile, outside of Utah some Mormons discover themselves in school districts where the majority religion persecutes them, such as was the case with Mormon family that sued the Santa Fe Texas School District. That case led to a decision in the US Supreme Court last year that ruled school-sponsored prayers at school football games were unconstitutional.


Schools struggle with limits of religion
Milwaukee WI Journal-Sentinel 9May01 T1

See also:

Coverage of the Santa Fe Texas School Prayer Case


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