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Religious Rights In Public Schools

Religious Rights in Public Schools
“JESUS in the classroom!” Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? Religion in the public school systems is among the top of the list of controversial topics in American society, We’ve long been advised to avoid this and other religiously politically intertwined subjects in polite conversation. If you’re like most Americans, this topic makes you frustrated, high strung, or at least a little queasy. From the day the 1st amendment right appeared in the U.S. Constitution, to this present day, and surely into our nation’s tomorrows, the proper role of religion in public schools has been, is, and will continue to be a subject of great debate. It is important for school officials, parents, and students to have a clear understanding of the 1st amendment and how it affects their religious rights and the religious rights of others in a public school setting. Unfortunately, most people are confused or misguided when it comes to this issue. The purpose of this paper is to guide the reader through a clear understanding of the 1st amendment; the impact it has had in education, the religious freedoms it grants to students, and the religious freedoms it grants (or doesn’t grant) to teachers.

The Constitution exists precisely so that opinions and judgments, including can be formed, tested, and expressed. These judgments are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree even with the mandate or approval of a majority (Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, 1999). In knowing that, the 1st amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting free exercise thereof…” As you can see there are two clauses in this part of the amendment. The first is known as the Establishment Clause, which simply says that congress cannot establish a religion. The second is known as the Free Exercise Clause, which prohibits congress from removing the right of the people to freely exercise any religion, or none at all.
Although these two clauses of the 1st amendment right seem simple to understand and clear and direct in it’s meanings, there is no doubt that “the 1st amendment needs breathing space and room for interpretation, and statutes attempting to restrict or burden the exercise of First Amendment rights must be narrowly drawn (Herndon v. Lowry, 1937).” For example, even the most stringent protection of religious rights would not protect a teacher from sacrificing her students in the name of religion. Every case, whether it be as ridiculous as the one above or a situation that would be much more relevant to every day life is confronted with a question, “was the religious expression used in such circumstances or are they of a nature that creates a clear and present danger?” Congress has a right to prevent those instances that will bring about substantive evils. In the end the question is one of proximity and degree (Holmes, 1999).
Since this amendment first appeared in December of 1791, there have been hundreds of court cases, ruling on the religious rights of students, teachers and other officials in public schools. These court cases with their extraordinary impact, have paved the way to the educational system we have today. Though schools were originally founded for the purpose of inculcating Judeo-Christian values, particularly to teach people how to read the scriptures, John Dewey, the so-called father of modern education, attempted to replace sectarian education and doctrine with a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race (Alley, 1996). Over the years since John Dewey, public schools have become secularized. There is no doubt that public schools have changed dramatically. Because of these changes many people have the mistaken view that religion is forbidden on public campuses. A recent poll appearing in the “Freedom From Religion Foundation” website states that about 60% of the general public is ill informed about the separation of church and state and how it applies in educational settings (Gaylor, 2001).
It may come as a surprise to some, but students have many religious rights on public school campuses. In 1969 the Supreme Court held that students “do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate” and that the First Amendment protects public school students’ rights to express political social and religious views (Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 1969). The following are students’ religious rights in the public school systems.

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Students have the right to identify their religious beliefs through signs and symbols (Brinkley, 2001) including clothing, jewelry, or any other visible expression. Schools enjoy substantial discretion in adopting policies relating to student dress and school uniforms. Students generally have no federal right to be exempted from religiously-neutral and generally applicable school dress rules based on their religious beliefs or practices; however, schools may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a particular religion, for prohibition or regulation. Students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages. Religious messages may not be singled out for suppression, but rather are subject to the same rules as generally apply to comparable messages (“A Parent’s Guide”, 2001).

Students have the right to talk about their religious beliefs on campus (Brinkley, 2001). Freedom of speech is a fundamental right mandated in the Constitution and does not exclude the schoolyard. Students may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics. School officials, however, should intercede to stop student speech that constitutes harassment aimed at a student or a group of students (Riley, 1998).
Students have the right to meet with other religious students (Brinkley, 2001). Under the federal Equal Access Act, 4 secondary public schools receiving federal funds must allow students to form religious clubs if the school allows other non-curriculum-related clubs to meet during non-instructional time. Non-curriculum-related means any club not directly related to the courses offered by the school. Student religious clubs may have access to school facilities and media on the same basis as other non-curriculum-related student clubs. Public schools are free to prohibit any club activities that are illegal or that would cause substantial disruption of the school (“A Parent’s Guide”, 2001). In 1993, a court held that a school district that opened its classrooms after hours to a range of groups for social, civic, and recreational purposes, including films and lectures about a range of issues such as family values and child-rearing, could not deny access to a religious organization to discuss the same, permissible issues from a religious point of view. Whether or not the classrooms were public forums, the school district could not deny use based on the speaker’s point of view on an otherwise permissible topic (Lamb’s Chapel v. Center).
Students have the right to pray on campus (Brinkley, 2001). The Establishment clause of the First Amendment does not prohibit purely private religious speech by students. Students may pray alone or with others so long as it does not disrupt school activities or is not forced upon others. Specifically, students in informal settings, such as cafeterias and hallways, may pray and discuss their religious views with each other, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other student activities and speech (Riley, 1998).

Students have the right to carry or study religious scripture on campus (Brinkley, 2001). The Supreme Court has said that only state-directed Bible reading is unconstitutional.

Students have the right to do research papers, speeches, and creative projects with religious themes (Brinkley, 2001). The First Amendment does not forbid all mention of religion in public schools. Students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.
Students have the right to be exempt (Brinkley, 2001). Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 3, if it is proved that particular lessons substantially burden a student’s free exercise of religion and if the school cannot prove a compelling interest in requiring attendance, the school would be legally required to excuse the student. Student may be exempt from activities and class content that contradict their religious beliefs. Subject to applicable State laws, schools enjoy substantial discretion to excuse individual students from lessons that are objectionable to the student or the students’ parents on religious or other conscientious grounds. However, students generally do not have a federal right to be excused from lessons that may be inconsistent with their religious beliefs or practices (Riley, 1998).
Students have the right to celebrate or study religious holidays on campus (Brinkley, 2001). Music, art, literature, and drama that have religious themes are permitted as part of the curriculum for school activities if presented in an objective manner as a traditional part of the cultural and religious heritage of the particular holiday.
Students have the right to distribute religious literature on campus (Brinkley, 2001). The Equal Access Act allows students the freedom to meet on campus for the purpose of discussing religious issues. Students have a right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature that is unrelated to school curriculum or activities. Schools may impose the same reasonable time, place, and manner or other constitutional restrictions on distribution of religious literature as they do on non-school literature generally, but they may not single out religious literature for special regulation (Riley, 1998).
Religious rights of students only go so far, they do not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate. School officials should not permit student religious speech to turn into religious harassment aimed at a student or a small group of students. Students do not have the right to make repeated invitations to other students to participate in religious activity in the face of a request to stop.

Having religious rights is a healthy necessary means of expression for students. As Bill Clinton stated “…Schools do more than train children’s minds. They also help to nurture their souls by reinforcing the values they learn at home and in their communities. I believe that one of the best ways we can help out schools to do this is by supporting students’ rights to voluntarily practice their religious beliefs, including prayer in schools…. For more than 200 years, the First Amendment has protected our religious freedom and allowed many faiths to flourish in our homes, in our work place and in our schools. Clearly understood and sensibly applied, it works (Riley, 1998).

Teachers are both individual citizens and agents of the state. Because of this, the 1st amendment serves to protect their freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, but also prohibits them, by the establishment clause, from soliciting or encouraging religious activity, and from participating in such activity with students (Staver, 2000).
Teachers are limited by the Establishment Clause to actively endorsing or promote a religious viewpoint.
Teachers do not have the right to pray with students or in front of students, whether it is student initiate and student led or not.

Teachers may exercise the right to wear religious clothing and jewelry, but to a limited degree. Like the students in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, as it relates to wearing religious clothing or jewelry, a teacher has some restrictions imposed by the Establishment Clause. If the content of the message is not religious, a teacher probably has greater latitude to wear clothing with an inscribed message. However, the First Amendment 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. If the school allows teachers to wear clothing with secular words or symbols or secular jewelry, then the school probably cannot prohibit a teacher from wearing clothing with religious words or jewelry with religious connotations. For example, if a school permits teachers to wear t-shirts on a particular day supporting the various student clubs, then the school must also allow teachers to wear t-shirts supporting Christian clubs with Christian words and insignia. However, unlike a student who may consistently wear a t-shirt with the message, Jesus died for you, a school could probably prohibit a teacher from consistently displaying the same message except in specific circumstances (Staver, 2000).
Teachers have the right to teach about religion. Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture: 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 all are permissible public school subjects. Similarly, it is permissible to consider religious influences on art, music, literature, and social studies. Although public schools may teach about religious holidays, including their religious aspects, and may celebrate the secular aspects of holidays, schools may not observe holidays as religious events or promote such observance by students (Alley, 2000).

Teachers have the right to teach values. Though schools must be neutral with respect to religion, they may play an active role with respect to teaching civic values and virtue, and the moral code that holds us together as a community. The fact that some of these values are held also by religions does not make it unlawful to teach them in school (Doherty, 2001)
Teachers may not lead a bible club. According to the Equal Access Act, schools may require student-initiated clubs to have a teacher sponsor. Schools may require a sponsor of religious clubs only if the same requirements are imposed on secular clubs. According to the Equal Access Act, 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 thl and national trade associations. Most of these organizations have a wealth of information available on everything from details on your competitors to average industry sales figures, new products, services, and trends. If you are given a membership certificate or wall plaque, you should display these conspicuously on you office wall. Customers like to see such seals of approval and feel additional confidence in your business when they see them. Still another thing often overlooked: If at all possible, you should have your spouse work in the business with you for at least three or four weeks per year. The important thing is that if for any reason you are not available to run the business, your spouse will be familiar with certain people and situations about your business. These people should include your attorney, accountant, any consultants or advisors, creditors and your major suppliers. The long-term advantages of having your spouse work four weeks per year in your business with you will greatly outweigh tgious expression or many forms, these rights are not taken away when in a public school zone. Students’ rights differ from teachers’ rights, and with good reason. The 1st amendment has transformed American education tremendously. Where once religion was acceptable and the practice there was mandatory, there is now caution and hesitance to intertwine religion and secular education.
A Parents’Guide to Religion in Public School. (2001). The Freedom Forum First
Amendment Center. Retrieved November 20, 2001,
From the World Wide Web:,1120,21-7361,00.html
Alley, Robert S. Without a Prayer: Religious Expression in Public Schools. Amherst:
Prometheus, 1996.

Brinkley, J. Student’s Bill of Rights on a Public School Campus. (2001).

Retrieved November 24, 2001, from the World Wide Web:,,PTID19000%7CCHID119761%7CCIID182578,00.html
Doherty, E. (2001). Religion and Values. American Atheists, 39 (9), 11.

Freedom From Religion. (2001). Retrieved
November 28, 2001, from the World Wide Web:
Gaylor, A. (2001, August). What Do You Know About the Separation of Church
and State?. Freethought Today, p.18.

Holmes, O. (1999). First Amendment Court Cases. Schenck v. United States (1919).

Riley, R. (1998). Secretary’s statement on religious expression. Retrieved November 15,
2001, from, the World Wide Web:
Staver, Mathew. Teachers’ Rights on Public School Campuses. Retrieved November 16, 2001, from the World Wide Web:
United States Supreme Court. (1993). Lamb’s Chapel v. Center. Washington DC.
Government Printing Office.

United States Supreme Court. (1994). Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of
Education, 827 F.2d 1058 (6th Cir. 1987). Washington DC; US Government Printing Office.

United States Supreme Court. (1969). Tinker v. Des Moines School Districk, 393 U.S.
503, 89 S. Ct. 733, 21 L. Ed. 2d. 731. Washington DC; US Government Printing Office.

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