Religion is making a comeback in public schools these days. After ignoring religion for decades, schools are understanding that “multicultural” now includes “religious diversity.” That makes good educational sense in a nation of many peoples and faiths.

But in the rush to be “inclusive,” some school districts are starting to trip over the First Amendment.

Earlier this year, a number of communities in California were in an uproar about “role-playing” Islamic practices in the classroom. (Yes, a lawsuit has been filed.)

Now a middle school in Suttons Bay, Mich., has sparked criticism for holding a “mini powwow” in the gym. According to The Leelanau Enterprise, the two-hour event included prayers, songs and dances led by members of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. At one point, the Enterprise reports, many teachers and administrators joined in dancing around the sacred “circle of life.”

Was this nothing more than a “cultural experience” for the kids, as the school district claims? Or a religious practice sponsored by the school – and thus a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Many Native Americans may view this as an odd question, since they probably don’t draw any bright lines between “cultural” and “religious.” Unlike many organized religions, Native American spirituality infuses all aspects of traditional American Indian life. That’s why it’s hard to pin a label on powwows.

But however “powwow” is defined (or not defined), the gatherings invariably include – as this Michigan one did – sacred dimensions such as prayer. And the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that school officials may not sponsor prayer in a public school. Period. The constitutional problem isn’t cured if students are allowed to opt out of the activity. However voluntary the activity, public school officials still may not promote religion.

Did school administrators in Suttons Bay intend to sponsor or promote religion by holding a powwow? Probably not. The event in question appears to have been a well-intentioned ceremony organized to mark the 30th anniversary of the federal Indian Education Act. Since some 17% of the students in Suttons Bay public schools are Native Americans, it’s natural (and commendable) that administrators and teachers would want to find ways to make tribal members feel welcome.

But good intentions can go awry. In their enthusiasm for inclusion and multicultural education, some schools go too far in their “hands-on” activities. A few examples: Day of the Dead celebrations (involving religious imagery and practices) are held in a number of California schools with large Mexican-American populations. At a Midwest school, Buddhist monks chant prayers at assembly programs. In some places, Islam is introduced by having kids act out the pilgrimage to Mecca.

But consider this: Would any of these schools dream of acting out the Catholic Mass or inviting a Protestant minister to give a sermon in the gym? Instead of “smudging” the gym with sacred herbs to purify it for a ceremony (as tribal members did at Suttons Bay Middle School), would the school allow a priest to burn incense to purify the space?

Not likely. Schools are quick to avoid promoting religion when it involves Christianity, the subject of so much litigation. But they seem less aware of the problem when “minority” religions or “cultural” practices are involved.

There is a better way – an approach that both upholds the First Amendment and serves the educational mission of the school: Teach about religions and cultures in public schools by providing teachers with proper academic training and good resources. (Joel Martin’s history of Native American religion written for young people, The Land Looks After Us, is a good place to start in this case.) This is the best way to include religion without promoting religion.

Some Native Americans (and school officials) may object that the powwow and smudging ceremony are “spiritual” and not “religious.” But for First Amendment purposes there’s no difference between the two. In fact, Native American leaders have been trying for years (with mixed success) to convince courts that Native American spirituality may not look like “organized religion,” but it deserves the same First Amendment protection as other religions.

Exactly right. That’s why Native Americans should be first in line to keep public schools from treating their sacred ceremonies as somehow “nonreligious.” If the First Amendment creates a level playing field where the government treats all faiths in the same way, then Native American spirituality can’t be promoted in public schools any more than schools can promote Christianity, Judaism or any other religion. Religion is still religion by any other name.

Suttons Bay Middle School has the right instinct. It’s important – and long overdue – for schools to acknowledge Native American religions and cultures.

But however well-intentioned, including religions and cultures by violating the Constitution doesn’t help anyone – least of all Native Americans. All of us have an important stake in making sure that First Amendment principles are applied fairly and justly to each and every individual and group in the United States.


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