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Religious expression - What is legally permissible for students in America's public schools?

Photo courtesy of Films for Christ. Copyrighted.

There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the issue of religion in public education. What can and can't students do. What can and can't school officials do? Horror stories abound that describe students doing what is legally permissible, with school officials reacting in ways not legally permitted. Much of the debate is based upon pure ignorance. People just don't know the facts. On a lesser scale, students have also violated religious dos and don'ts, clashing head-on with teachers and administrators.

On August 10, 1995, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, working under the direction of President Clinton, issued a "statement of principles" titled "Religious Expression in Public Schools." At a time in our nation's history when religion, and Christianity specifically, experiences the wrath of scholarship and academia, Secretary Riley's effort attempts to inform and guide school superintendents across the country.

Let's be clear on one point. Secretary Riley's Statement is an expression of today's courts, as understood by the current Attorney General. It does not indicate the goals of the framers of the Constitution—America's Founding Fathers, who had a different perspective on religion in public education. Formerly, Christianity was to be encouraged; in fact, it was advanced. Daily Bible reading and devotionals were an accepted standard in public education.

Within the last generation the courts, and especially the Supreme Court, have dramatically shifted the relationship between government and religion, or Church and State as it is commonly called. However, our goal here is not to analyze the history of this shift or the history of religion in public education. We simply want you to know where things are—right now.

There's the way it is, and there's the way it was. The Secretary's Statement reflects the way it is.

[To learn more about the way it was, read David Barton's book, Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion]

Summary of current legalities concerning religion in public education

Copyrighted. Photo courtesy of Films for Christ.
  • DISCRIMINATION—School authorities may not discriminate against religious activity or speech.

  • BIBLE READING AND PRAYER—Students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say a prayer before meals, and pray before tests.

  • DISCUSSIONS—Students may attempt to persuade their peers concerning religious topics, just as they may political topics. Harassment, however, (which is not defined) is not permissible.

  • SCHOOL WORK—Students may use religious themes in their homework, artwork, or other assignments, and such work should be judged (graded) by ordinary academic standards.

  • LITERATURE—Students have the right to distribute religious literature (tracts, etc.) to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature.

  • RELIGIOUS OBJECTIONS—Students may be excused from lessons that are objectionable on religious or other conscientious grounds.

  • CLOTHING—Students may wear clothing depicting religious themes, and these messages may not be singled out for suppression. They are subject to the same rules as apply to comparable messages.

  • CHRISTIAN GROUPS—Students religious groups at public secondary schools have the same right of access to school facilities as is enjoyed by other comparable student groups.

  • STUDENT MEETINGS—Student meetings may include a prayer service, Bible reading, or other worship exercise.

  • ACCESS—Students may use the public address system, the school newspaper, and the school bulletin board to announce their meetings, on the same terms as other student groups. (This only applies to schools receiving federal funds.)

  • GRADUATION PRAYER—School officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation ceremonies, nor organize baccalaureate services.

  • TEACHING—Schools may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture, the history of religion, the Bible-as-literature, and the role of religion in the United States and other countries. Schools are to be neutral with respect to religion. However, 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. Schools may not allow religious instruction by outsiders on school premises during the school day. However, school officials may dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction.

  • SCHOOL OFFICIALS—School officials, as representatives of the state, may not solicit or encourage religious activity, nor participate in such activity with the students.

There are indeed gray areas surrounding religion in public education. For example, the question of whether or not students can pray—as students—at their graduation ceremonies has yet to be addressed by the Supreme Court in a definitive manner. There are differing opinions in the various Appeals Courts. There are other gray areas that will no doubt need continual clarification. The Secretary of Education's Statement is simply the federal reaction to a growing problem in public education. Fine-tuning will be done in the courts.

Recommended for further reading

  • Is the religion of Secular Humanism being taught in public school classrooms? Answer

  • The truth about "Separation of Church and State" - When did the government pass this law and where can it be found? Answer

  • What is the legal and moral role of the Bible and Christianity in the U.S.A.? Should God be separated from American government? Answer

  • How important is it to be "Politically Correct?" Answer

  • Where should Christians draw the line in trying to make the U.S. a Christian nation? Answer

  • Should Christians seek political power, or should we only focus on evangelism? Answer

  • David W. Barton, Original Intent: The Courts, The Constitution, and Religion (Wallbuilder Press, 1996).

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