Religious Freedom at Public Schools
NOTE: Legal issues involving public schools, teachers, and students are often very fact specific. The advice contained below is general in nature, and the specific facts of your situation may lead to a different result. Thus, we strongly urge you to contact ADF and speak with a member of our legal team so that we can provide advice that is tailored to your specific situation.
Do students have the right to express their religious beliefs at school?
Yes, students have the right to share their beliefs, pray, evangelize, read Scripture, and invite students to participate in such activities during free time so long as they do not (1) substantially interfere with the operation of the school or (2) infringe on the rights of other students. The right to expression also extends to the clothes students wear. Students may thus wear religious clothing to the extent that other like articles of dress are permitted. A school may not prohibit student expression solely because others might find it “offensive.”
Can students express their religious beliefs during class?
While in class, students are free to express their religious views in a class discussion or as part of an assignment, so long as the expression is relevant to the subject under consideration and meets the requirements of the assignment.
Can students distribute religious material at school?
Yes. As with any student speech, if it (1) substantially interferes with the operation of the school or (2) infringes on the rights of other students, then the school can prohibit it. Schools are not permitted to impose an outright ban on student distribution of literature, and students are permitted to distribute religious materials to the same extent that non-religious literature distribution is allowed.
Can students form religious clubs at school?
Secondary school students may form religious clubs and meet on campus if the school receives federal funds and the school allows other non-curriculum related clubs to meet during non-instructional time. Religious clubs must be given equal access to all school facilities, resources, and equipment that are available to other non-curriculum related clubs. These clubs must be student-led and student-initiated. Teachers may be present to monitor club meetings.
Both primary and secondary school students have a right to meet in after-school, community-sponsored religious clubs if the school opens its facilities to community groups. Here, teachers and adult community members may not only be present, but may actively participate in the club’s activities, including engaging in prayer, leading the group, etc.
Can students pray at school?
Prayer is private speech that is protected by the Constitution. Thus, students may pray at school on their own or in groups during non-instructional time so long as it is not disruptive or coercive. This includes praying as a team before or after a game or practice, as long as it is completely voluntary, student-initiated, and student-led.
Is it okay to bring a Bible to school? Can it be used as a resource for an assignment?
Students may bring their Bibles and other religious books to school just as they may bring non-religious books. They can also use their Bibles in assignments so long as it is relevant to the subject under consideration and meets the requirements of the assignment.
Can students wear religious clothing or jewelry to school?
Schools may not single out religious clothing or clothing displaying a religious message for unfavorable treatment. Students may wear religious clothing to the extent that other like articles of dress are permitted. Clothing or jewelry bearing a religious message is generally treated as speech and cannot be restricted unless it (1) substantially interferes with the operation of the school or (2) infringes on the rights of other students.
What can students do if their rights are being violated?
Students and parents should contact Alliance Defending Freedom before attempting to work with the school administration to resolve a given situation by using the Request Legal Help Form or calling 1-800-835-5233.
Who is Alliance Defending Freedom?
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith. We seek to resolve disputes through education of public officials regarding the constitutionally protected rights of our clients. When necessary, we litigate to secure these rights. Alliance Defending Freedom has participated in many recent court decisions governing students’ religious and free speech rights in public schools.
Can teachers discuss their religious beliefs and share their faith with other faculty and staff members?
Because teachers do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door, they have the right to discuss their religious beliefs with other faculty and staff members. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education issued a memorandum regarding religious expression at school recognizing that:
Teachers may … take part in religious activities where the overall context makes clear that they are not participating in their official capacities. Before school or during lunch, for example, teachers may meet with other teachers for prayer or Bible study to the same extent that they may engage in other conversation or nonreligious activities.
Likewise, if teachers are permitted to post or distribute flyers for community activities or announcements in the faculty lounge or in teachers’ school mailboxes, then religious events and activities may be publicized to other staff members in the same manner.
Some schools allow teachers to utilize a classroom or a lounge to meet with other teachers. If the school allows teachers to use its facilities for non-curriculum related matters such as socialization and entertainment, then teachers should also be able to use the same facilities for Bible study and prayer. In such circumstances, only teachers or other school employees should be in the meeting, not students.
Can teachers wear religious clothing or jewelry at school?
The Establishment Clause places certain restrictions on a teacher with respect to promoting religion. The more objective the writing without promoting a religious view, the more likely the teacher is able to wear the article of clothing or jewelry. For example, unlike a student who may consistently wear a t-shirt with the message, ‘Jesus died for you,’ a school could prohibit a teacher from wearing the same t-shirt while at school. On the other hand, even if a dress code exists restricting teachers from wearing religious symbols or clothing, certain articles are allowed. For example, teachers have a First Amendment right to wear clearly personal items of religious jewelry, such as necklaces displaying a cross or the Star of David. Additionally, if a school permits teachers to wear t-shirts on a particular day supporting the various student clubs, then the school must generally also allow teachers to wear t-shirts supporting Christian clubs with Christian words and insignia.
Are teachers permitted to be sponsors of student religious clubs?
According to the Equal Access Act, schools may require student-initiated clubs to have a teacher sponsor, but only if the same requirements are imposed on secular clubs. However, the provision of a school sponsor, whether an employee, agent, or otherwise, does not mean that the school endorses the club. A teacher or other school employee as the agent of the school may be present at a religious meeting in a "non-participatory" capacity to ensure order and discipline is maintained. This "non-participatory" attendance means that the teacher or school employee should not actively lead or direct the group. The club must be student-initiated and student-led, and students should be solely responsible for leading worship, prayer, and Bible studies.
Can teachers participate in after-school, community-sponsored religious clubs and activities?
Schools may not prohibit teachers from participating in after-school, religious-based, community-sponsored activities. When teachers are “off-the-clock,” they are private citizens entitled to the same constitutional rights as other community members. Thus, federal courts have concluded that a teacher’s participation in an after-school Bible club at the teacher’s school was private conduct that did not violate the Establishment Clause because the teacher was “off-the-clock” when conducting the meetings and was not acting as a representative the school.
Can schools and teachers provide instruction related to religion as part of the curriculum?
While a teacher may not use the classroom to indoctrinate students, a teacher may disseminate information in an objective manner so long as the information is reasonably related to the curriculum.
The Supreme Court has recognized that the study of the Bible or religion when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education is consistent with the First Amendment. The Bible can therefore be taught in a school for its historical, cultural, or literary value but not in a devotional or doctrinal manner. For example, a teacher may objectively teach the Bible in a history of religions class, study the Bible as part of a literature course, and even discuss, perform, critique, and overview religious music, composition, and history.
Can schools and teachers discuss religious holidays in music, art, drama, and literature?
Teaching about a religious holiday is permitted if it is part of a program of education which is presented objectively and does not have the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. For example, a teacher may explain that Easter is a religious holiday celebrated by Christians who believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.
One way to ensure objective teaching is to include both the secular and religious aspects of a religious holiday when discussing it. If a public school teacher displays or presents secular aspects of the holiday along with the religious aspects, including symbolism, music, art, drama, or literature, then the display or the presentation should be deemed constitutional.
The same principle applies to holiday programs. Religious Christmas carols may be sung by students during school activities such as choir, Christmas programs, and other events. Religious Christmas songs such as "Silent Night, Holy Night" may be sung so long as secular songs of the holiday are also sung, like "Rudolph the Red - Nosed Reindeer." There is no magical formula between the balance of the secular versus the religious song. The main issue is that secular songs must be mixed with religious songs. Likewise, in art class, the teacher may overview religious art so long as secular art is also overviewed.