Freedom of religion is one of the things that first brought immigrants to America. And it's one of our most cherished rights. The First Amendment protects that right in two ways. It ensures that we are freely able to practice the religion of our choice and it prohibits government from establishing a religion and forcing us to participate.
The ACLU of Montana works on religious freedom on several fronts, both responding to abuses and providing public education on the issue.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS
School children are especially vulnerable to abuses of this right -- frequently from well-intentioned people who don't understand the First Amendment. To help school officials navigate these issues and how they apply to real world situations, the ACLU of Montana published a guide to the law, Religious Freedom in Public Schools: A School Official's Guide, on issues like school prayer, holidays, religious garb and more. Public schools must keep three fundamental First Amendment clauses in mind:
The Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." This clause prohibits public schools from endorsing or encouraging religion in any way.
The Free Exercise Clause: "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." This clause ensures that students are free to exercise their own religious beliefs without governmental interference.
The Free Speech Clause: "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech." This means that students are free to express their religious views at school, within certain guidelines.
Together these clauses protect students from having religion imposed upon them by school administrators and teachers, while at the same time ensuring they can freely practice and express their own religious views. The ACLU of Montana is available to consult with school officials on specific constitutional questions in public schools.
The ACLU of Montana has participated in several cases defending religious freedom, and has written many letters objecting to its abuses, such as our protest when MSU Northern started its 2010 graduation ceremony with a Christian prayer. Some examples:
Knows His Gun v. Crossroads Correctional Center The ACLU brought a human rights complaint in April 2009 against the state of Montana, Crossroads Correctional Center and Corrections Corporation of American on behalf of Native American inmates at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby, Mont., whose rights were violated through en-masse strip searches, being denied the ability to properly celebrate sweat lodge ceremonies and being retaliated against when they complained about the mistreatment. The state of Montana investigated the claims and issued a report in May 2009 confirming almost all of the prisoners' allegations.
Sammons v. Charlo School District At the commencement ceremony in May 2005, one of the principals with the Charlo School District began the ceremony with a prayer, in clear violation of US Supreme Court precedent on separation of church and state, and statewide school policies. Charlo School District agreed to settle the informal complaint by requiring training of all of its faculty, by reviewing their local policy to assure its constitutionality and by a letter to the complainant that her concerns had been addressed. As part of the training, the ACLU of Montana brought to Montana, Charles Haynes, a nationally recognized expert on separation of church and state issues. He provided training not only to the faculty and staff at Charlo School District, but also in coordination with the Montana Teachers Association, gave a presentation in Missoula.