In junior high school, Liz Loverde went through a dark period in her life. She was depressed, thought of self-harm, and even contemplated suicide.
But her Christian faith ultimately brought her safely through those dark days.
Students are watching to see whether school officials will tolerate their religious beliefs or deem them illegal.
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As a sophomore at Wantaugh High School on Long Island, New York, Loverde realized there were a lot of kids who were going through the same struggles she had faced. She realized how much she wanted to help, so she tried to form a group called “Dare to Believe.” The idea was to institute a student club that would meet after school, focused on helping students support each other and strengthen each other in their faith.
Loverde’s principal reviewed the proposal, striking out any reference to religion. Even then, the principal refused to approve “Dare to Believe,” explaining it was illegal to have a religious club in a public school.
Shocked by this response, Loverde reached out to my law firm for help. We sent a letter to Wantaugh High School explaining the law and informing them that not only was the club legal, but Congress passed a law in 1984 called the Equal Access Act to make sure school officials did not discriminate against religious students like Liz Loverde.
We explained that when a school official intentionally strikes through references to a student’s religion and tells the student that religious clubs at public schools are illegal, he is not only demonstrating hostility toward religion, he is violating the very freedoms upon which our country was built.
The school, facing an imminent civil rights lawsuit, suddenly reversed its decision, and “Dare to Believe” was finally founded.
But then, something strange happened. Because word had spread that school officials thought religious clubs were illegal, students were scared away. Even teachers — afraid of punishment by school administrators — were reluctant to sponsor the club.
Loverde was disappointed. She had simply wanted to help her fellow students overcome bullying and depression, but adults who mistakenly sent a message to students that religious clubs were “illegal” in public schools prevented her from giving students the help they needed.
The next year, she decided to home-school as she prepared for college, but her brother started attending Wantaugh. He began to lead the “Dare to Believe” club, inspired by how he saw his sister fight for the club’s existence. The club still meets today, giving students a safe space to share Bible verses, run food drives, and encourage one another to “Dare to Believe” in something greater than themselves.
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Liz Loverde graduated from high school a few months ago and will start college next fall. Her brother is still in high school and is still leading “Dare to Believe.”
As students across America return to school from their summer break, this story provides an important lesson for students, parents, and school officials.
Over the summer, many students used their free time to work at religious camps, go on short-term missions trips, or help at the local soup kitchen — each a meaningful, free exercise of their religion.
As they enter the hallways of our public schools, students face a choice not unlike the decision Liz Loverde encountered: Must they hide the faith they were free to exercise during the summer from those who think religion is illegal at school — or can they be who they really are?
Religious students of many faith backgrounds fear a lack of acceptance at school. They are afraid to be who they really are because they might be punished by administrators, mocked by their teachers, or bullied by their classmates.
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America’s students will learn necessary lessons of reading, writing, and arithmetic this school year. They will cheer on their schools’ teams and participate in the arts.
They will learn lessons about who we are as a country. Either the adults — parents, teachers, administrators — will teach them that American freedom includes the liberty to take one’s faith to school with them, or they will denigrate freedom by an intolerance that shuts out the diversity these religious students bring to their local community.
Everyone is watching. Students — like Liz Loverde — are watching to see whether school officials will tolerate their religious beliefs or deem them “illegal.” Younger siblings, like her brother, are watching to see whether it is OK to be true to one’s faith at school. Students who want to attend a religious club but fear they could be punished for joining a supposedly “illegal” organization are watching, too.
What will your students learn about freedom from your school? Let us commit ourselves to the cause of freedom by making this the school year that public schools across America show tolerance for their students’ free exercise of religion.
Jeremy Dys is senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm based in Plano, Texas, that is dedicated to defending religious freedom for all. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.