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Religion-free zone?

America's public schools are in a bind. A new law requires them to allow 'religious expression' on school grounds - or risk losing federal funds. But they risk a lawsuit if they do.

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It's already been a tough year for Mary Czajowski.

As superintendent of the 4,400-student school district in Agawam, Mass., she has spent much of the school year worrying about testing, school choice, teacher certification, and paperwork - all to comply with the No Child Left Behind federal education act of 2001.

But now, as graduation approaches, the law is creating a new worry. As the result of a little-noticed provision in NCLB, Dr. Czajowski's schools - like all US public schools - face a double-barreled threat.

If schools allow any religious speech at the graduation ceremony, most are aware that they could face a lawsuit. But now, if they don't - according to the dictates of NCLB - they could risk losing federal funds.

"School districts are in a very, very difficult position," Czajowski says.

The decades-old struggle over the place of religion in American public schools may be about to flare up yet again. A provision in NCLB mandates that if a school has any policy in place that curtails a student's right to "religious expression" as spelled out in recent government guidelines, it could lose its federal funding.

For groups that advocate greater freedom of religion in public schools, the guidelines mailed out to all districts Feb. 7 from the US Department of Education are cause for rejoicing.

The threat to cut off funding "gives [these guidelines] teeth," says Anthony Picarello, vice president and general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington. For too long, he says, school administrators frightened of lawsuits have squashed legitimate religious discourse on school grounds. From now on, Mr. Picarello adds, "the safest course will no longer be to break all ties with religion."

But for groups that promote the separation of church and state, the guidelines spell danger.

"The 800-pound gorilla of these regulations is the threat of cutting off financial aid," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington.

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