Few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to religious symbols and schools

Nour Elmohd is a Muslim teacher in Tampa who wears a hijab in the classroom. Policies on religion in the classroom are murky.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Nour Elmohd is a Muslim teacher in Tampa who wears a hijab in the classroom. Policies on religion in the classroom are murky.

Two days ago, the St. Petersburg Times profiled a Muslim teacher in Hillsborough who wears a head scarf called a hijab because it makes her feel closer to God. It prompted emotional questions about where schools draw the line on religious expression and free speech.

If a hijab is okay, how about a cross on a necklace? Or a shirt that says "Jesus Loves You"?

How about a shirt that says "Islam is of the Devil"?

It depends. Are we talking teacher or student? Are they expressing faith or trying to persuade? Are they causing a ruckus?

Often the lines in such cases are not hard and fast. They shift and blur based on court rulings, on a principal's discretion, on location and reaction. Consider:

Can teachers and students in public schools wear Christian crosses around their necks?

Yes. And many do. There is no policy in Pinellas or Hillsborough prohibiting the wearing of crosses or other nonobstructive religious items like, say, the Star of David.

At Land O'Lakes High School in Pasco, one Jewish teacher wears a yarmulke in class.

But there can be exceptions, said Pinellas school board attorney Jim Robinson. A teacher with a cross four inches tall, "almost like you'd expect a religious order to wear," he said, "would be crossing a line, sending a proselytizing message."

On the other hand, it would be okay for a student to wear the same cross, he said.

The rules are stricter for teachers, who must be neutral concerning religion, Robinson said. They are barred from using their public positions to promote religious beliefs to children.

What about a shirt that says, "Jesus Loves You"?

For teachers, Hillsborough says yes — to a degree. Pinellas says no.

The big question in Hillsborough is whether the item or message becomes disruptive, said district spokesman Steve Hegarty. For the most part, the district leaves that determination to principals.

If a teacher wore a "Jesus Loves You" shirt and nobody objected? No problem, Hegarty said. If there was a chorus of complaints? Different story. A principal must maintain an orderly learning environment and must determine if somebody's idea of religious expression is interfering with that mission, he said.

Robinson said "Jesus Loves You" would go too far. Glenn Katon, a religious liberties expert with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, agreed.

"Then you're not expressing your personal belief only, you are trying to indoctrinate," he said.

Katon said the issue here, though, is free speech, not freedom of religion — and teachers don't have the same free speech rights in schools as they do in other spheres.

Again, different story for students, he said. He brought up some legal terminology: the "substantial disruption" test.

Rough translation: Free speech for students can be curtailed if it disturbs the learning environment for others.

"I can't imagine that anyone would say that 'Jesus Loves You' is a substantial disruption," he said.

What about a shirt that says "Islam is of the Devil"?

This isn't a hypothetical.

In Alachua County last year, students associated with the Dove World Outreach Center — the same church that's in the news now for a Koran-burning planned for Saturday — wore T-shirts with that message into public schools. Alachua officials told them no — some schools banned the shirts, others told students to cover up the message.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on the students' behalf in November. It's pending.

Katon said there wasn't the "slightest scintilla of evidence" that the shirts caused a disruption. The district says based on the message, it could predict that it would, he said. On free speech grounds, that's not good enough, he said.

"Our position is that as offensive and hateful as the message is … wearing letters on a shirt doesn't cause a disruption, unless it was an incitement like 'Kill Principal Jones,' " he said.

Pinellas officials probably would not condone the message, said Robinson in Pinellas. Hillsborough officials probably wouldn't either, said Hegarty, the district spokesman.

"That is a hateful message and has the potential to be disruptive," he said. But when it comes to potentially disruptive messages, he added, "one campus might be different from another."

Any recent flareups over religious expression in Florida schools?

A few. In the western Panhandle, officials in the Santa Rosa County school district are still wrestling with the terms of a 2009 consent decree that bars employees from pushing their religious beliefs on to students in class.

The decree stems from a lawsuit filed by the ACLU to stop school officials from promoting prayer in classrooms and at school events. The district later admitted it had been violating the Constitution.

In the aftermath, some employees say they don't know whether they can say "God bless you" after a sneeze.

Closer to home, a few people objected last year when students at Tarpon Springs High School organized a safe driving program and used crosses to symbolize death, Robinson said. School officials met with the students, who responded by using tombstones instead.

"We simply resolved it the good old fashioned way," Robinson said.

By talking.

Where can we get more details about religious expression in schools?

Here's one source: The First Amendment Center at www.firstamendmentcenter.org. It has a lot of information about religion in schools, including "A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to religious symbols and schools 09/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 3:07pm]

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