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What Types of Religious Activities Are Allowed in Public Schools?

The separation of church and state is always changing. It's difficult to know how the courts will decide on religious matters in schools, but there are some basic rules to guide religious activities in public schools. Unlike private schools or religious schools, public schools are bound by the Constitution about religion.

Specifically, school districts must not violate the First Amendment religion clauses: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

Understanding the protections for religious beliefs at school is crucial. Controversies in this area often arise from certain situations and actions, causing violations. Examples include

  • School prayer
  • Curriculum issues
  • The use of school facilities by religious organizations

Read on to learn more about religious activities in public schools.

School Prayer

Public schools must make reasonable religious accommodations for students based on their religious beliefs and practices. This includes allowing students to participate in activities with religious purposes, like prayer.

Students can typically pray in school as long as they are not disruptive when praying and it does not interfere with classroom instruction or other educational activities. This includes other areas besides the classroom like the cafeteria, locker room, and hallways. For example, a student can pray in the hallway during a break, but cannot kneel in such a way that it causes a barrier for other students to move.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a school district cannot require that students take a minute of silence at the beginning of the day if the purpose of the requirement is that the students use the time for prayer.

Students can be released from school for ritual prayers or religious instruction classes.

The courts often make a distinction between individual prayer and group prayer. Individual prayer is favored over group prayers because with the latter there is a perception of a captive audience or that students are compelled to participate.

Graduation Prayers

School officials cannot require or plan prayer at graduation. They also cannot plan a religious ceremony like a baccalaureate mass.

The Supreme Court struck down a school district's policy of inviting clergy to lead prayer at graduation.

Does it matter whether the prayer is initiated by the school or a student? The law does not make a distinction between school-initiated prayers and student-initiated prayers during graduation ceremonies. Neither is permitted.

Curriculum

It is acceptable to learn about the:

  • Bible
  • Quran
  • Torah
  • Other sacred texts as history, ethics, or comparative religion

A teacher can't reference the religious teachings as a singular truth, or portray one religion over another as being superior or a chosen belief.

Use of School Facilities by Religious Organizations

Another important religious activity that is permitted is the formation of religious groups on school campuses. Under the Equal Access Act, a school district is required to give equal access to an outside organization that provides after-school religious instruction to secondary school-age children. The use of school facilities by religious student groups is following policies that also allow nonreligious groups to use the facilities.

Student-organized religious clubs can meet at school before or after the school day. Schools must also recognize and accommodate religious holidays, such as understanding that students may need time off for religious observances.

Free Speech and Religious Liberty

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) is a federal law that protects the right to religious expression. It limits the government's ability to burden the free exercise of religion.

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits Congress from making any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Students have the right to share religious content and religious messages within the school setting, but the content cannot disrupt or infringe on the rights of others. This protection extends to students' religious liberty to express their beliefs openly.

Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and Religious Exercise

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides civil rights protections for a range of activities, including

  • Education
  • Public accommodations
  • Programs receiving federal funds

In schools, two parts of the Civil Rights Act are important for stopping discrimination. Title IV says public schools can't discriminate on the:

  • Basis of religion
  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex
  • National origin

Title VI says programs or activities getting federal funds can't discriminate based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin

While Title VI offers protection against discrimination in schools, it does not cover instances of discrimination based on religion. The U.S. Department of Education provides guidance on Title VI and religious discrimination. Title VI protects religious groups that face discrimination based on their shared ethnic characteristics. 

For example, Muslim or Jewish students who face discrimination based on their ethnic characteristics, regardless if they share the same religious identity, are protected under Title VI.

Examples of Acceptable Practices

In the past, the courts have ruled that the following practices do not violate the First Amendment religion clauses:

  • Transportation of students to private, sectarian schools at public expense
  • Public buying of secular textbooks for use in religious schools
  • Religious groups and nonreligious groups using school facilities according to policies
  • Release of students from schools to attend religious instruction classes
  • Provision of a signer for a deaf student in a religious school at public expense
  • Students having religious clubs on school property before or after school

Examples of Prohibited Practices

The courts have prohibited the following practices in the past:

  • Sending public school teachers into private, sectarian schools to provide remedial instruction
  • Providing a publicly funded salary supplement to teachers in religious schools
  • Compelling students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance

Speak to a Civil Rights Attorney About Religious Discrimination

It is hard to know which religious activities are allowed in public schools due to the complicated intersection of religion and government. If you worry about how your religious rights might clash with school activities, talk to a lawyer. Speaking to a civil rights law attorney will help your understanding of this very unsettled area of law.

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