Who can be excused from class?

Try to imagine what would happen if the following scene took place in a "Religions of the World" class in a public school.

First, the social studies teacher explains the history of Pentecostal Christianity and offers a statistical snapshot of the movement. Then he says that students need to experience Pentecostalism, in order to understand it. So they are told to kneel, lift their hands high and try to join in as he speaks in tongues. Afterwards, the students sing a few choruses of "Jesus, name above all names" and are given an assignment to watch Pat Robertson on "The 700 Club."

What would happen? Many parents -- Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Presbyterian, agnostic or whatever -- would scream bloody murder. If school officials insisted on spending tax dollars on these lessons, many parents would certainly ask that their children be excused or allowed to attend alternative classes.

This imaginary scene would never take place, of course. Nevertheless, this church-state nightmare is a mirror image of scenes Mathew Staver keeps hearing about at the Liberty Counsel office in Orlando. Parents call and describe classes in which their children are given an overview of various world religions. So far, so good. But some report that their children are then guided into experiential lessons in which they join in rites and prayers totally foreign to the faith practiced in their homes.

The result is one of the tensest standoffs in today's church-state arena, alongside older battles over evolution and sex education.

"One of the main things we keep hearing about is classes where students are told to pretend they're part of some other faith, especially Eastern religions such as Buddhism," said Staver. "They may be shown meditation techniques and asked to take part in simulated rituals -- lighting candles and learning to do certain chants. ... Obviously, some parents feel threatened."

When parents complain, some school officials are cooperative. But some are not.

This raises obvious questions: If it's wrong to spend tax dollars in support of Christianity or Judaism, then shouldn't it be wrong to similarly fund activities that criticize these faiths or that promote other religions and rites? And what happens if millions of parents start asking that their children be excused from all school lessons that are even remotely linked to religion?

Last week, the White House released a revised set of guidelines intended to help ease these kinds of tensions. After all, said President Clinton in his weekly radio address: "Our founders believed the best way to protect religious liberty was to first guarantee the right of everyone to believe and practice religion according to his or her conscience; and second, to prohibit our government from imposing or sanctioning any particular religious belief. That's what they wrote into the First Amendment. They were right then, and they're right now."

Education Secretary Richard Riley noted that these guidelines were virtually unchanged from a 1995 set, which drew support from an unusually broad coalition -- from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Association of Evangelicals. However, one of the few revisions will affect students seeking relief from objectionable lessons. This change came after the Supreme Court declared the Religious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional.

The earlier guidelines said that if officials could not "prove a compelling interest in requiring attendance the school would be legally required to excuse" students from objectionable lessons. The new guidelines, however, state that schools "enjoy substantial discretion" in such cases and that "students generally do not have a Federal right to be excused from lessons that may be inconsistent with their religious beliefs or practices."

Since 1995, said Staver, schools have been doing a much better job of allowing free speech about religion. However, it's hard to predict how state officials will react to this revised excusal clause in the guidelines.

"Students have a right to free speech," he said. "They also have a right not to have to listen to speech they find offensive, even in the classroom. Perhaps students and parents will be able to raise a free-speech objection the next time one of these cases comes up. ... But that's new ground that we haven't plowed yet."