The charter school system, which receives taxpayer dollars but is run outside of the public educational system, has spiked debate on the issue of prayer in schools.
The District of Columbia and 42 states have charter school laws, according to the Center for Education Reform
, but because the laws are generated at state level they vary considerably. Many saw the opportunity to enroll their children in charter schools, which can sometimes be run by religious organizations, as the opportunity to have more say in what their children are taught.
But as the issue of prayer in charter schools came to light, debate about whether institutions that get taxpayer funding should be allowed to cross the line that separates government and religion has grown. According to information from the U.S. Department of Education, charter schools are public schools and may not provide religious instruction, although they may teach about religion from a secular standpoint.
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Despite the clear guidance that charter schools fall under the same constitutional rules as public schools, many believe that enrolling their children in the proliferating religious charter schools should mean that their religious preferences will be taught in those schools.
It has been a challenge to monitor charter schools, especially those being run by religious organizations, to make sure they aren't breaking federal regulations that prohibit school prayer.
In 2008, the Minneapolis StarTribune
took a close look at an Islamic charter school, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy. The Minnesota Department of Education told the newspaper that there had been oversight of the school to make sure it wasn't allowing prayer and other practices that violate the separation of church and state. But a substitute teacher told the newspaper that all students in the school prayed together, and the paper also said that teachers may participate in the daily prayers, something that's prohibited by federal guidelines. The school was eventually shut down.
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Other states have been faced with charter schools — and with public schools — that violate the prayer in schools regulations. According to the North Carolina Policy Watch
, in 2014, the Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy was brought to task because a teacher taught students a prayer to say at lunchtime.
"Students are free to pray on their own ... but a teacher cannot facilitate or lead that," said Ted Bell, a Thomas Jefferson board member.
Even though the mother of a student complained about the prayer, the school did not respond until the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter. Patrick Elliot, with the foundation, pointed out that charter schools have to abide by the state-church separation.
The decision was met with controversy by some who went to the board and asked that children not be denied the ability to pray. But federal regulations don't forbid children from praying on their own; they simply prevent teachers and school officials from leading prayers, either in charter schools or in the public school system.
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