Opt-Outs are Unreliable: Part 2

In a previous post I provided an example of how there are inherent administrative pitfalls that make “opt-out” policies simply unreliable. 

Now it appears that an opt-out policy is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t go far enough for those it was designed to benefit.  Last month, parents of students at Robious Middle School in Chesterfield County heard that the school had decided not to sing certain songs at a Christmas concert because a few students complained that the songs contained references to Jesus. Aside from the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled that religious songs are permissible in public schools, what’s puzzling about this instance is that the County considers religious music to be an appropriate part of a school’s overall education enrichment.  Their policy on religious beliefs and customs provides the following:

This policy recognizes the pluralism of religious beliefs of citizens and the significance of religion in Virginia's history. The historical and contemporary values and the origin of religion may be explained in an unbiased and objective manner without sectarian indoctrination.

Music, art, literature, history, world language and drama, among others, having religious themes or bases are permitted as a part of the curriculum for school‑sponsored activities and programs if presented in a prudent and objective manner and as a traditional part of the cultural and religious heritage.

The use of religious symbols that are a part of a religion may be permitted as a teaching aid or resource provided such symbols are displayed as an example of the cultural and religious heritage and are temporary in nature.

Within the County’s religious beliefs and customs policy is what amounts to an “opt-out” accommodation, which states: 

[i]n that spirit of respect, students and staff members may be excused from participating in activities that are contrary to their religious beliefs unless there are clear issues of compelling public interest that would prevent it. [Emphasis added]

Under the current mechanics of an opt-out policy, a student is afforded the opportunity to be excused from an activity or curriculum that conflicts with his or her beliefs, while still permitting the other students to continue to participate.

That’s not what happened at Robious Middle School. 

Instead of exercising the discretion afforded by the County’s policies, the teacher decided  to eliminate all religious themed music from the production because parents of students simply did not find the opt-out accommodation adequate.  That means that students who wanted to sing songs containing religious overtones were denied that opportunity.

What happened at Robious Middle School actually rendered the opt-out policy null and void.

Using this same rationale, it would be like saying that if one or more students who object to the human sexuality component of FLE instruction on religious or moral grounds and elect to opt-out should result in the school’s decision to eliminate all materials dealing with human sexuality for all students.

It appears that the County would have been much better off with an “opt-in” policy, whereby parents could have made their decision to allow their children to participate in the production based on the types of songs that were going to be performed.