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Religion in Public Schools

Schools generally may not advance any specific religion, but they also must not inhibit the expression of religion. This article reviews the types of religious objects and activities that are allowed on school grounds.

Student Private Prayer

Prayer is allowed on school grounds as long as it is completely initiated and led by students, and does not use school resources. If the prayer can reasonably be perceived as school sponsored, such as publication through the school-run student newspaper, then the prayer is said to "bear the imprimatur" of the school and is impermissible.

Schools must be careful when allowing students a forum in which to express themselves. Students could choose to insert religious messages into their speech, and schools must tread carefully to avoid unreasonably restricting student speech or religious expression.

For example, in Fleming v. Jefferson County School District (U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit, 2002), students at Columbine High School were asked to create tiles for a permanent art display to commemorate the shooting that took place there in the spring of 1999. Some students chose to put the message "God is Love" on their tiles. The school refused to include these tiles in the display, and the students sued the school. The Supreme Court ruled that if the school allowed these tiles, the school would also have to allow tiles with distasteful messages, such as "God is Hate" as part of their display, and since those tiles would become a permanent part of the school, the school retained the authority to ban the tiles.

To date, there still has been no significant litigation over the Muslim practice of Salah, in which the observant must pray five times a day through quiet chanting and a series of poses including standing, kneeling, and prostration. Students may have the right to pray in this manner under the Free Exercise clause, but schools may balk at excusing these students from class and setting aside school resources to be used for prayer.

Student Religious Clubs

Many students form clubs to discuss topics of religious importance with their peers. Schools may allow these clubs to meet on school grounds after hours, provided that these clubs are treated in the same manner as other student organizations and that religious clubs of all faith are allowed.

Religious Works of Historical and Artistic Significance

Much of the world's great art involves religious themes and imagery. Schools may display this artwork and discuss religion's influence on art, architecture, or history. For example, Michealangelo's mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is considered one of the greatest works of art ever created, and reflects the changing understanding of the power of art, perspective, and anatomy. Teachers may discuss the Sistine Chapel without discussing the religious importance of the stories depicted, just as Greek mythology is taught in the context of its cultural and artistic influence.

Similarly, teachers may discuss the history of religion and basic religious tenants in order to put historical and current events in context. Basic understanding of Christianity is essential for understanding the motivation behind the Crusades; the schisms of the Muslim faith fuel a large portion of conflicts in the Middle East; and the pacifist tendencies of Buddhists help explain why China still occupies large portions of Tibet.

For more information, see FindLaw's sections on Student Speech and on the Types of Schools children may attend.


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