Students have the right to freely live out their faith at school. This information will arm you with the knowledge you need.
Students have the right to express their faith through what they wear, such as a pro-life t-shirt or a cross. Schools can place some restrictions on what students can wear, but they can't single out religious clothing.
- Wear shirts, pants, necklaces, bracelets, and other articles of clothing that display a religious symbol (i.e., cross) or religious message (including a Bible verse) as long as they meet the school’s dress code.
- Ban any clothing with a message that (1) materially and substantially interferes with the operation of the school, (2) is lewd, vulgar, or objectively obscene (i.e., contains profanity or sexual content), or (3) promotes violence or drug use.
- Ban clothing or accessories because their messages are religious or contain a religious symbol or picture, or others may find their religious message, symbol, or picture offensive.
Watch out for:
- Policies that ban clothing that is “religious” or “proselytizing” or that prohibits so-called "promoting the superiority" of a set of beliefs over any other set of beliefs.
- Policies that prohibit clothing that is offensive, disrespectful, or use other subjective criteria to restrict the message on clothing.
- In Pennsylvania, a student who wore a homemade t-shirt with the message, “Abortion is not Healthcare” was forced to turn his t-shirt inside out because a teacher questioned whether it was appropriate. After Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on the student’s behalf, the school district agreed to change its problematic policies.
- A school counselor crossed out the message on a student's t-shirt with a message expressing her opposition to homosexual behavior because school officials said it might provoke “incidents of harassment.” The next year, they responded the same way when her classmate wore a similar shirt. Alliance Defending Freedom represented the students in challenging the school district’s policies and won.
Given the central role that religion plays in many students’ lives, it is natural that they would desire to express their religious viewpoints in class discussions and class assignments.
- Express their religious beliefs in classroom discussions, homework, projects, artwork, and all other school assignments as long as it is relevant and meets the requirements of the assignment.
- Prohibit, punish, or give a lower grade to a student who includes religious viewpoints in a class assignment.
Watch out for:
- Instructions for an assignment that restrict the discussion of religious beliefs, religious figures, or Bible passages.
- School officials telling students that they can’t reference religion in an assignment or include religious images in pictures or artwork.
- A line from a first-grader's poem for a Veterans Day celebration was deleted because it described how her grandfather prayed while serving on the frontlines during the Vietnam War. In response to a letter from Alliance Defending Freedom, the school allowed her to read her complete poem at a school board meeting, and the school district adopted a policy protecting the right of students to include religious viewpoints in their assignments.
- A Wisconsin student was told to remove or cover up a reference to John 3:16 on a piece of artwork he created. The school cited a policy that banned depictions of “blood, violence, sexual connotations, [or] religious beliefs.” After Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of the student, the school district removed the ban on religious expression in class assignments.
Many schools have told students that they cannot pray around the flagpole before school or say a blessing over their food in the cafeteria. But the First Amendment protects all forms of religious expression, including prayer at school.
- Pray on their own or in groups during non-instructional time at school as long as it does not significantly disrupt the activity of the school.
- Engage in student-initiated, student-led prayer before or after practices, sporting events, or other school functions as long as such prayers are voluntary and not required by coaches or other school officials.
- Stop students from praying individually or in groups without evidence that the prayers would significantly disrupt the school environment (for example, making a student late for class).
- Require students to participate in prayer or any other religious activity.
Watch out for:
- Policies that prohibit prayer, proselytizing, or other religious activity during school or at school-sponsored events.
- Teachers or coaches who stop students from praying over meals or before or after games, practices, or other school events.
- A high school football team in Michigan had a long-standing tradition of students volunteering to lead prayer at the end of games. But after the school received a threatening letter from the ACLU, the team was forced to stop. Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter educating the school on the students’ constitutional right to pray together, and the school reversed that decision.
Graduation and Sporting Events
Students honored to speak at their graduation are encouraged to reflect on their time in school and acknowledge those who have impacted their life. Many Christian students properly want to acknowledge God’s impact in these speeches or even offer a short prayer. When a school follows the guidelines set out below, courts have found that the First Amendment protects the right of religious students to express their faith at such events.
- Designate a time at graduation, sporting events, or other school events for a student to speak on a matter of his or her own choosing, as long as neutral criteria is used to select the student speaker (i.e. valedictorian, class president, or randomly selected from a list of eligible students), and no school staff are involved or review the speech.
- Designate a time specifically for prayer, nor can a school instruct a student to offer a prayer at graduation or any other school-sponsored event.
- Express a religious viewpoint (such as reciting a Bible verse, describing how their Christian faith influenced them, or offering a prayer or blessing) when chosen to speak at a graduation ceremony or any other school event or activity on a topic of their choosing.
Watch out for:
- Warnings from school officials that a student selected to speak at graduation is not permitted to discuss religious topics, quote from the Bible, or pray.
- Threats from anti-religious groups like the ACLU or Freedom From Religion Foundation against schools that allow student speakers to give a religious message or prayer at school-sponsored events.
- Schools across Tennessee received a threatening letter from the ACLU warning them not to allow prayer at football games. Alliance Defending Freedom responded by offering to assist school districts in preparing a policy that would allow student speakers to give a pre-game message (including a prayer if the student so chooses).
The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that the First Amendment protects not only the spoken word but also the distribution of literature, pamphlets, and other written materials. These materials provide an effective and non-intrusive way for Christian students to share their faith or pro-life beliefs with their classmates.
- Distribute religious literature before and after school, in between classes, and during lunch and recess unless the distribution substantially interferes with the activity of the school.
- Post religious flyers on the walls or in other designated locations if students have the right to post other, non-religious content in the same locations.
- Impose reasonable limits on literature distribution, such as the time, place, and manner of distribution, but those limits cannot be so restrictive that they would effectively ban literature distribution by students.
- Completely ban literature distribution by students.
- Prohibit written materials because they are religious or proselytizing.
- Enact policies that give school officials the ability to prohibit materials that they subjectively find to be “offensive” or “inconsistent with the school’s educational mission.”
Watch out for:
- Policies that ban religious or proselytizing literature.
- Policies that place unreasonable limits on the times and locations in which students can hand out flyers and other written materials at school.
- Schools that routinely allow the distribution of other party invitations or flyers but deny invitations to a church-sponsored event because it might “offend” another student.
- Pennsylvanian schools’ administrators did not allow Katie Ayers, an elementary student, to hand out invitations to a church Christmas party. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys sued the school district, resulting in an important court ruling that affirmed the rights of students of all ages to distribute literature.
- A middle school student in Minnesota was called into the principal’s office after she and her friends handed out pro-life flyers to friends during lunch. Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit, resulting in a new school policy that respected the rights of students to share their religious and pro-life beliefs.
Students can find strength and refuge when they join together to form religious clubs at school. The First Amendment and the Equal Access Act protect the right of students to form religious clubs at school and to receive the same benefits that are given to other non-curriculum clubs.
- Form religious clubs and meet on campus if the school allows other non-curriculum clubs (such as a Key Club or Students Against Destructive Decisions).
- Have equal access to all school facilities, resources, and equipment available to other non-curriculum clubs.
- Promote their events and activities in the same manner that other non-curriculum clubs are permitted to do so.
- Invite outside speakers to attend and present at their meetings to the same extent that other non-curriculum clubs are allowed to do so.
- Condition membership and leadership positions on the basis of shared values to the same extent that other groups can do so.
- Deny recognition to a club because it is religious or deny the club any of the benefits or privileges given to other non-curriculum clubs.
- Force a religious club to include those who do not share the groups' values unless it requires that all groups are open under an "all comers" policy.
Watch out for:
- Policies that deny recognition to religious clubs or deny them the benefits and privileges given to other non-curriculum clubs at the school.
- Indirect efforts by schools to discourage students from forming a religious club, such as encouraging students to join with members of another religion to form an inter-faith club.
- A pro-life club in Minnesota was denied recognition because it allegedly “does not support the student body as a whole.” But the school recognized several other clubs, including an Environmental Club and Anime Club. After Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of the student group, the school reversed course and granted the club full recognition.
- A principal in Long Island, New York refused to recognize a Christian club, stating that “I don’t want this in my school.” The school district was eventually forced to recognize the club and adopt a policy affirming the rights of the club after Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on the club’s behalf.
As a service to the community, many schools allow community organizations to distribute informational materials to students and parents regarding the services and activities they provide and to use school facilities for their meetings and activities. Religious groups and churches have a First Amendment right to use these same methods to communicate their message to the public.
Religious community groups can:
- Distribute written materials on the same terms if a school permits community groups to distribute flyers and literature to students, such as through a take-home flyer program, school website, or literature rack.
- Use the facilities for religious meetings, worship services, student clubs, and other activities if a school permits community groups to use school facilities before or after school for meetings or events.
- Ban churches from distributing flyers promoting church-sponsored events while permitting nonreligious community groups to promote their activities to students.
- Ban religious community groups from using school facilities for their activities if they have opened their facilities for use by nonreligious groups.
Watch out for:
- Policies that stop the distribution of religious or proselytizing written materials by community groups or that deny religious community groups access to use school facilities for their meetings and activities.
- Policies that charge religious groups that run programs for children more to rent school facilities than other community groups like the Boy and Girl Scouts.
- A community-sponsored Bible club for students at an Oklahoma elementary school was stopped from promoting its meetings through the school’s take-home flyer program and other methods even though nonreligious community groups were permitted to do so. After Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of the group, the school district revised its policies so that the religious group received equal treatment.
- An after-school Bible club in Pennsylvania was charged $1,200 to rent school facilities for its meetings, while other non-profit groups, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, were given free access. Alliance Defending Freedom Allied Attorneys filed a lawsuit challenging the fees, resulting in the Bible club receiving free access once again.