Sometimes it is the fear of something that causes more problems than the "something" itself.


Anticipating a needle can be worse than the quick sting of a shot. And so it can be with prayer in schools.


The First Amendment's protections of religious freedom and the constitutional separation of church and state have led to many a clash that the Founding Fathers probably didn't anticipate with language that seemed intent on avoiding exactly that problem.


Sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, schools have put up too many walls around the idea of religion. It's understandable. Nobody wants to violate the law, and no one wants to be sued.


But for four Allegheny County school districts and six others in the region, proactive policies seem to be placing them on precisely that path. The Independence Law Center in Harrisburg sent out letters to the districts last month asking them to reconsider policies that abridged students' religious freedom or risk being sued. The public-interest law firm, which is affiliated with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, sent similar letters to 55 Pennsylvania school districts.


Pine-Richland, Oil City, Big Beaver, Avella and Neshannock districts are revising policies in student handbooks that prohibit students from discussing religion.


That particular prohibition seems like it violates not only freedom of religion but speech too, so the change would appear to be in keeping with constitutional goals.


"Instead of equal treatment, many schools have treated students' religious speech like dangerous asbestos — to be cordoned off and eliminated from our schools," said Jeremy Samek, senior legal counsel for the Independence Law Center.


But school district fears do seem justified as they not only walk a tightrope on the issue, but that rope is being used in a tug-of-war between those who want more prayer and those who want more limits.


The answer isn't a muzzle, though. There is a world of difference between a school requiring students to pray and a school allowing students to express themselves on an issue like religion.


"If students are allowed to speak about politics or other subjects, then they are allowed to talk about religion," said Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, whose scholarly work specializes in religion and the law.


It's almost like the guys who wrote the Constitution thought big ideas could change the world, and that's nothing to fear.


The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.