Religion in the Public Schools
©2009 Kimberly Hartfield
The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward it, nor antagonism against students’ religious expressions. As the Court has explained in several cases, “there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.” The Supreme Court’s decisions over the past forty or so years distinguishes between government endorsed religious speech and private religious speech, which is clearly protected by law. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that private religious speech is as fully protected as is secular private speech under the Free Speech Clause. Students may pray or use religious expressions with other students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may use in any other conversation or speech. Student comments cannot be attributed to the government just because they are made in a public school setting. Students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that religious instruction could not be allowed in public schools in their McCollum v. Board of Education decision. In 1954 the Supreme Court allowed a lower court ruling to stand in Tudor v. Board of Education, against the distribution of Bibles by outside groups like the Gideons. In 1962, in Engel v. Vitale the Supreme Court disallowed a government-composed, nondenominational “Regents” prayer which had been recited by students in public schools. In 1984, the Federal Equal Access Act was passed, affecting all public schools that received federal funds. It required that religious clubs be allowed in public schools if other clubs, which were also not related to the curriculum were already allowed. These religious groups had to be run by the students themselves, and could not be convened during class time, with membership in the group having to be voluntary. The Equal Access Act’s has been upheld to be constitutional by the Supreme Court and doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Education updated the guidelines on religion in public schools. In 1995, it was decided that public schools could now allow students to be excused from classes that conflict with their religious beliefs. The Secretary at that time, Riley, made three recommendations to local school boards and teachers:
- that every school board should have a policy on religious expression.
- that teachers be made aware of the role of religion in public schools through workshops and schools of education.
- that parents should be informed about student’s rights to religious expression as well as their freedom of conscience.
On July 12, 1995, President Bill Clinton spoke to students at James Madison High School in Vienna, VA., saying that “nothing in the 1st Amendment converts our public schools to religion-free zones or requires all religious expression to be left at the schoolhouse door.” A short time later, on August 10, 1995, the President directed the federal Department of Education to issue a memo to public school superintendents. This document is called Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law. This statement is an accurate statement of what the law currently is, and is a consensus on what the current laws do and do not allow. It is a good guide for educators, parents, and students alike. Some of principles stated in that memo were:
- Students can read religious books, say a prayer before meals and pray before tests, etc. to the same extent that they may engage in secular non-disruptive activities.
- In informal settings (cafeterias, hallways, etc.) students may pray and discuss religious subjects with other students, just as they may talk about any other subject.
- Students can witness to other students, but cannot harass other students out of religious motivation.
- No student can be coerced into any religious activity by another student or a school official.
- Teachers and administrators cannot discourage or promote religious activity because of its religious content, which applies to anti-religious activity as well.
- Schools can teach about religion and its role in society, and can teach about the Bible as literature, but they cannot provide religious instruction.
- Students can distribute religious literature in the same way that they are permitted to distribute non-religious literature.
- Students may be released from the public school setting to attend religious classes at another location.
- Teachers and administrators cannot encourage or discourage students from taking advantage of such classes.
- Schools can teach about common civic values, but they must be neutral with respect to religion.
This document states that students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not being disruptive. It also states that the Establishment Clause does not apply to private speech made by students. Students have the right to read their Bibles or other scriptures, say a prayer before meals, pray before tests, and discuss religious subjects with other students who are willing to listen. In the classroom students have the right to pray quietly, except when they are required to be actively engaged in school activities. Outside the classroom, students are subject to the same rules of order as apply to other speech in these locations. School officials may not authorize or organize prayers at graduation, nor may they organize a religious baccalaureate ceremony. The courts have reached conflicting conclusions under the federal Constitution on student-initiated prayer at graduation ceremonies. Until this issue is finally resolved, school officials should ask their lawyers what rules might apply in their area. Students may be taught about religions, but public schools may not teach the tenets of a particular religion. It would be quite difficult if not impossible to teach art, music, literature and most social studies without considering the religious influences on each of these areas of study. The History of Religion, Comparative Religion, and The Bible-as-Literature are all subjects that are allowed to be taught in public schools. These may be taught as individual courses, or they may be included as part of another existing course. The role of religion in the history of the United States and in other countries may also be taught. The first pilgrims came to this country with a particular religious vision, specifically the Christian faith. Many of these religious observers had also been subject to much persecution in their home countries, because of their faith. Those who were involved in the abolitionist, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements all had religious motivations. None of these facts can be ignored, when teaching on these topics. The U.S. Supreme Court stated that, “it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion, or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”
In comparative religion or social studies classes, teachers may teach about the differing explanations of life on earth, including the religious ones, like Creationism. On the other hand, in science classes, only scientific critiques of explanations of life on earth may be taught. No religious critiques, which are believed by some to be unverifiable by scientific methodology, may be taught, at this time. Schools may not refuse to teach evolutionary theory to avoid offending religious communities, and they may not teach an article of religious faith as science, such as Creationism. Schools may not teach any religious doctrine as scientific theory, while any scientific evidence for or against any explanation of life may be taught. Teachers should never ridicule a student’s religious explanation for life on earth, and students may express their religious or anti-religious beliefs in oral reports, homework, artwork, classroom discussions, and student presentations, which are all constitutionally protected speech. Teachers may not reject or correct submissions that include religious symbols or other religious aspects. Teachers may not require their students to change their assignments to remove religious view points or expressions.
Schools must balance students’ right to express themselves on religious subjects and student listeners’ right to be free of religious persuasion in a public school classroom. Teachers may not silence a religiously-based comment. They may not ridicule, exclude, or endorse religious remarks, but teachers may exclude any remarks that are irrelevant to the subject being discussed. If a class assignment calls for an oral presentation on a subject of the student’s choosing, and the student proceeds to conduct a religious service, the school has the right to prevent itself from being used as a church, because other students cannot be forced to become a congregation against their will. Students may distribute religious literature, such as the Truth for Youth Bible, or the Gideon’s Bible to their schoolmates. The same restrictions apply to this as apply to any other non-school literature. Schools may limit its distribution to a particular time or place, but it may not single out religious literature for this regulation, if it does not restrict the distribution of other kinds of literature. Outside groups, such as the Gideons, are no longer allowed to have access to the classroom. Neither religious literature, nor anti-religious literature may be passed out in the classroom, by any outside group. No court has yet considered if religious groups must be allowed to distribute literature in the common areas of public schools, if all other community groups are permitted to do so, as well. This is still up in the air for now.
Student participation in before or after school events, such as “See You at the Pole,” is permissible. School officials, acting in an official capacity, may neither discourage this, nor encourage participation in such an event. Students have the right to invite friends and acquaintances at school to attend church with them, and to speak to or attempt to persuade their peers on both religious and political topics. School officials may only intervene if a student’s actions become harassing toward another student. Repeated attempts by one student to convert another to a religious persuasion in the face of a request to stop are considered harassment. Student religious clubs must be allowed to meet in non-instructional time, if other clubs are also allowed to meet in non-instructional times. These clubs must also be allowed equal access to campus media, such as bulletin boards, loud speakers, newsletters, etc. to announce their meetings, if a school receives federal funds and allows any other non-curricular club to meet and use these. A non-curricular club is any club, which is not related directly to a subject area taught in the school. Schools do have the right to ban all non-curriculum clubs, but may not exclude only those that are of a religious nature. They may not declare some or all clubs to be curriculum-related, in order to allow them to meet. Teachers may not actively participate in any of the club activities. Non-school personnel may not lead or regularly attend the club meetings.
Public Schools may teach about the religious aspects of the holidays, and may celebrate the secular aspects of the holidays, but may not keep the observance of holidays as religious events. Teachers should excuse students who do not wish to participate in these celebrations. Schools may also excuse students from lessons which are objectionable to that student or the parents of that student on the basis of their preferred religion, which will likely defuse many of the conflicts over objectionable curriculum content. Schools are legally required to excuse students if particular lessons considerably encumber a student’s free exercise of religion, if the school does not have a convincing argument to require the student to attend. Public schools may teach civic virtues, including respect for other persons and their property, respect for the rights and freedoms of others, honesty, good citizenship, good sportsmanship, courage, courtesy, hard work, moral conviction, and tolerance. Schools may teach both sexual abstinence and the use of contraceptives in their sex education curriculum. How schools teach these subjects is a matter of educational policy, but they may not be taught as religious tenets. The fact that most religions also teach these types of values does not make it unlawful to teach them in public schools. Students may wear religious clothing, in the same way they are allowed to wear other clothing. T-shirts with religious messages may not be singled out for suppression. Students may not be forced to wear gym clothes, which they or their parents consider immodest on religious grounds. Schools may dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, and may not encourage or discourage this practice. Schools may not penalize those who do or do not attend this kind of extra-curricular instruction. Schools may not allow religious instruction on the school premises by outsiders, during the school day.
Teachers may not participate in religious activities or advocate any particular religious view when they are teaching, counseling students, or acting as representatives of a school. Teachers should not share their personal religious views with students, but if a teacher’s religious views are discussed with students, the students must not be encouraged by the teacher to accept those views or practices as their own. A school can ask a teacher not to express religious viewpoints in the classroom, with schools having the right to stop teachers from giving the impression that it endorses a particular religion. The Unites States Constitution requires that a state-supported activity, such as a public school, not to be used for religious indoctrination. When acting in their official capacities, teachers and school administrators are prohibited from encouraging or soliciting student religious or anti-religious activity, or engaging in any religious activity with their students, but teachers are allowed to have private religious activity in their free time. Some courts have upheld state statutes that restrict teachers from wearing religious clothing, in order to remain religiously neutral, and not to appear to endorse a particular religion. Teachers are permitted to wear religious jewelry such as cross necklaces, and stars of David. Teachers have the same rights as any individual, when students are not present, such as when they are in a break room, or in their class room after hours. Teachers may participate in activities of religious organizations at their school after hours, as individuals rather than as school representatives, but they must make it clear that the school and government are not endorsing the activity.
In light of this information, public schools are clearly not religion-free zones and student’s religious rights cannot be ignored, nor trampled on by public school officials. Public schools should be neutral and never antagonistic toward students’ expressions of religious faith. The relationship between religion and government is governed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which also protects religious activity that is initiated by students and other individuals from any government interference and discrimination.