IOWA — Since Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s latest TV ad hit the airwaves, national reporters and those based here in the Hawkeye State have noted his appeal to anti-gay sentiment and his claim that President Obama is engaged in a “war on religion.”
But one topic has received relatively little attention in the coverage: how well Perry’s claim that religious expression is prohibited in schools is supported by the facts. The claim is part of a broader effort to appeal to the state’s social conservative voting bloc and break into the top tier of candidates with less than four weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses. But as presented by Perry, the claim could reinforce misconceptions about what the rules actually are, and in the process fuel cultural resentments.
The new ad, called “Strong,” begins with Perry declaring, “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian. But you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”
He continues: As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.”
Perry’s line about gays serving openly in the military is a reference to the recent repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. But his claim that children “can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school” rests on shakier ground.
To be sure, there are restrictions on religious activity in public schools. As The Associated Press noted in a fact-check article about the ad, “The Supreme Court prohibited school prayer in two landmark decisions in 1962 and 1963, calling it an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.” (Full disclosure: I will join the AP’s Des Moines bureau as a legislative reporter after the Iowa caucuses.) And in a Wednesday interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Perry cited a recent case in which a federal judge in Texas ruled that a high school’s graduation ceremony could not include an opening or closing prayer, or the words “invocation” or “benediction.”
But the restrictions on prayer apply to organized activity, not to what individual students choose to do, Randall Wilson, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, said in an interview with CJR. He said the group “would jump at the chance” to represent a student who felt he or she couldn’t pray — or celebrate Christmas — in a public school.
A spokeswoman for the Iowa Association of School Boards said the group does not specifically address school prayer in its guidance to districts, because the topic is covered by federal law. The association’s guidelines do note that school districts are “required to keep the practice of religion out of the school curriculum”—but also that “expressions of belief or nonbelief initiated by individual students [are] permitted in composition, art forms, music, speech and debate.”
IASB policies also note that school districts can indeed observe holidays — such as Christmas, Halloween, and Easter — through programs and performances, as long as the events are deemed to have a secular purpose and not to advocate for or sponsor a particular religion.
Those restrictions are unpopular with some voters, but they don’t amount to a ban on celebrations of Christmas, open or otherwise. “It’s one of those big lies that typically are repeated over and over until people come to believe them,” the ACLU’s Wilson said of Perry’s claims.
Even coverage that was critical of the ad did not note the discrepancy.
For example, the AP’s fact-check, which called the ad “misleading and inaccurate,” instead focused on “Perry’s suggestion that Obama has led the way in banning prayer in public school.” But while Perry may have implied that, he didn’t explicitly say so in the ad.
Among Iowa news outlets, the most substantial coverage came from the state’s largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register. The paper ran two posts about the ad on Wednesday, neither of which examine the accuracy of Perry’s claims about religious expression.
State and national outlets spent more time on Perry’s inflammatory claim that Obama is waging “war on religion.” In the first Register post, reporter Jennifer Jacobs got comments from LGBT advocacy groups, but concluded the post with a long list of examples provided by the Perry campaign to support the “war” claim, including the Obama administration’s decision not to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act in court, without offering further context. The Register’s second post pushed further, introducing views from leaders of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa.
On CNN, Blitzer challenged Perry’s rhetoric more directly, and got an illuminating answer: one front in the war, Perry said, is the Obama administration “clearly sending messages to people of faith and organizations of faith that we’re not going to support you with federal dollars” if the organizations don’t abide by federal regulations.
That sort of exchange can help voters decide whether they think the “war” rhetoric is well-founded. Meanwhile, Blitzer’s CNN colleague Anderson Cooper introduced another relevant point: at last week’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House, President Obama delivered a religious message about the birth of Christ.