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Religious Accommodation for Students

Public schools have a careful balancing act they must perform when their students seek accommodations for their religious beliefs. As a general rule, public schools may not advance any specific religion or discriminate in their treatment of different religions. However, they must also avoid acting or failing to act in any way that prevents students from exercising their right to religious expression and observation.

Public Schools' Obligations

The First Amendment of the Constitution includes two clauses relating to religion and public institutions. First, there's the "Establishment Clause," which prevents the government and public institutions from activities that endorse, advance, or otherwise advantage one religion over another. Second, there's the "Free Exercise Clause," which prohibits actions that would prevent individuals from observing their religious practices. Religious accommodations generally fall under the requirements of the Free Exercise Clause, since in some cases, the failure to make allowances for the religious beliefs of students may impede their religious observance.

Through court decisions, several different tests were developed for use in cases where schools claimed a justification for impeding their students' free exercise of religion. In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act for the express purpose of establishing that schools may only burden a person's religious exercise where they can show a "compelling interest" and the least restrictive means possible are employed to protect that interest.

Another law directly related to religion and schools is the Equal Access Act, which ensures that student religious activities are given the same right of access to school facilities as comparable non-religious student groups. This law indicates that where a "limited open forum" is made available to students it is unlawful to deny equal access or discriminate against any students who wish to conduct a meeting within the forum for religious purposes. The law defines "limited open forums" (student club meetings and other voluntary meetings not sponsored by the school or state) as well as "fair opportunity" for access to those forums. As elsewhere, this law has the caveat that schools may take action necessary to ensure the order, discipline, and well-being of their students and faculty, while also ensuring that attendance of students at such meetings is voluntary.

Although not legally binding in itself, schools' obligations and student's rights under these laws are outlined with some clarity in President Clinton's Memorandum on Religious Expression in Public Schools issued to the Secretary of Education and the Attorney General in 1995.

Students' Religious Rights

Public school students have a number of rights when it comes to their religious beliefs, including:

  • The right to use school facilities for religious groups and activities on an equal basis with other school groups, though the school may inform students that the group is not school-sponsored.
  • The right to express religious belief in school assignments without judgment as to the religious content, although their work may still be judged by normal academic standards of substance and relevance.
  • The right to pray in a non-disruptive manner when not engaged in school activities or instruction and subject to the rules that normally apply to their setting provided they are not disruptive to the school environment.
  • The right to speak to peers and attempt to persuade them about religious topics, although the school must intercede where such speech is harassing.
  • The right to display religious messages, to the extent that students are permitted to display comparable secular messages, or wear religious garments.
  • The right, subject to the school's substantial discretion, to be excused from lessons that would substantially burden the student's free exercise of religion.
  • The right to distribute religious literature to fellow students in the same time and manner as they may non-religious literature.

Dietary Restrictions and School Lunches

Schools are not required to provide accommodations for religious dietary restrictions in school lunches, though some school districts attempt to meet the needs of their students where a large percentage commonly observe dietary restriction. Since a child may bring lunch from home the failure to provide lunches that comply with dietary restrictions has not been found to infringe upon the student's rights to the free exercise of religion.

The school district in Dearborn, Michigan provides halal meals for its predominantly Muslim schools, while other school districts eliminate meat on Fridays during Catholic Lent. Some schools offer a vegetarian option intended to satisfy any students with religious dietary restrictions. The issue of school lunches has not been litigated, however, so it remains to be seen whether courts would find the provision of special menus to some but not all students with religious restrictions to be a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Consulting with a Lawyer

Religious rights in the context of public education remain hotly contested. If you feel that you or your children's rights to religious expression and observance have been infringed you should contact an experienced civil rights attorney to discuss your claim.

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