“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none.
Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.
- Students have the right to engage in individual or group prayer and religious discussion during the school day just as they have the right to engage in other comparable activities. Students may read Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray before tests to the same extent they may engage in comparable non-disruptive activities. Schools/teachers may not discriminate against religious activity or speech. Students may also try to persuade other students about religious topics unless it becomes harassing in nature.
- Students can participate in before and after-school activities with religious content, such as “see you at the pole” gatherings. School officials can neither encourage nor discourage student participation in these events.
- The right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion free from discrimination does not include the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate. Teachers and administrators should ensure that no student is in any way coerced to participate in religious activity.
- School officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation.
- Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scriptures, the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture) as literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries. Similarly, it is permissible to consider religious influences on art, music, literature, and social studies. Schools may teach about religious holidays, including their religious aspects, and may celebrate the secular aspects of holidays, but schools may not observe holidays as religious events or promote such events.
- Students may express their religious beliefs in the form of homework, artwork, and other oral and written assignments. Such work should be judged by ordinary standards of substance and relevance.
- Schools/teachers can excuse students from lessons that are objectionable to students’ religions; how-ever, students generally do not have a federal right to be excused from lessons that may be inconsistent with their religious beliefs or practices.
- Schools/teachers may play an active role in teaching civic values, virtues, and a moral code. The fact that some of these values are also held by religions does not make it unlawful to teach them in school.
- Students have a right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates on the same terms that they are allowed to distribute other literature that is unrelated to school curriculum or activities.
- Since our school has created an open forum, as described in the Equal Access Act, religious groups can use the building to have meetings. Religious groups can announce their meetings using the school public address system, bulletin boards, etc., on the same terms as other non-curriculum-related student groups are allowed to use the school media.
- Teachers may invite guest speakers to talk about whatever religious topic they are teaching at the time. These can be ministers, professors, religious community leaders, or others who are experts in the field. Teachers should inform speakers of the First Amendment guidelines which allow schools to teach about religion and impress upon them the academic nature of their discussion.
- As employees of the government, public school teachers are subject to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and thus required to be neutral concerning religion while carrying out their duties as teachers. Teachers may not pray with or in the presence of students during the school day. Teachers can pray or engage in other religious activities outside the presence of students. Teachers can pray or participate in religious activities in the presence of students if these activities are silent. Teachers are permitted to wear non-obtrusive jewelry, such as a cross or Star of David, but they cannot wear any clothing that contains a proselytizing message.
- Teachers can respond to high school students if they ask about the teacher’s personal religious beliefs. Older students typically can distinguish between a personal view and the official position of the school. If a teacher chooses to answer a student’s question about his/her personal religious beliefs, the answer should be brief and should not include any statement that could be interpreted as proselytizing for or against religion.