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Stern said the report aimed to help school administrators deal with the “harder cases,” those in which students express controversial ideas — sometimes based in religious teachings — such as “Homosexuality is a sin.”
“Some people find those sorts of things offensive. Is that bullying? What can school officials do about that?” Stern asked. “The speech is presumably protected unless school officials can show that it is disruptive or that it damages or infringes on the rights of others.”
According to Stern, the AJC issued the report in order to update a 1995 statement to clarify for teachers and parents the religious rights of students in school settings.
On the topic of religious freedom, the earlier report, which was endorsed by the ADL, said that “students have the right to speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics. But school officials should intercede to stop student religious speech if it turns into religious harassment aimed at a student or a small group of students.”
Stern said that the spate of religious freedom cases since the earlier report provided further fuel for the new guidelines. He mentioned in particular the 2006 case in which a San Diego area high school student was disciplined for wearing a shirt with the words “Homosexuality is shameful — Romans 1:27” The student wore the shirt the day after a national protest at his school for LGBT rights.
The student sued the school on free-speech grounds, but a federal judge threw out the case, saying that the student’s shirt was disruptive and offensive.
The ADL lashed out against the AJC report, calling the guidelines “ill-conceived” in a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It suggested that the AJC’s focus on the tricky line between free speech and harassment might distract attention from the bigger problem of full-blown physical or verbal abuse.
“Bullying situations very rarely erupt as conflicts over political or religious speech,” the letter stated. “Instead, they much more often involve the intentional targeting of an individual with less physical or social standing for physical or verbal abuse.”
“It could create confusion for schools that are dealing with the serious problem of bullying,” said Deborah Lauter, the ADL’s director of civil rights. Lauter called the report “not necessary,” saying that free-speech protections were already detailed in an October 2010 letter from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on the topic of religion in public schools.
Both groups say they are engaged in the issue of bullying as part of their broader advocacy work and not out of a particular concern that Jewish students might be the victims.
According to Stern, the AJC sought the input of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in formulating the recent guidelines. But in the end, GLSEN did not officially endorse the report.
GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said the group applauds the goals of the document but did not want to endorse it, given the heated political climate around school bullying and religion. Byard mentioned failed attempts to protect religious students from anti-bullying rules in the Tennessee and Louisiana legislatures.
“What we see are some fairly fringe elements trying to misuse religion as a basis for exemption from bullying-prevention protections,” Byard said.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at firstname.lastname@example.org