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What Types of Religious Activities are Allowed in Public Schools?

The law of separation of church and state is continually evolving and it can be hard to predict how the courts will rule on issues involving religion in public schools. However, there are general guidelines that can help determine what types of religious activities are allowed in public schools. Unlike private and/or religious schools, public schools are bound by the Constitution regarding religion.

Specifically, school districts must not violate the First Amendment religion clauses: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. There are many instances where violations can occur, but certain situations and actions give rise to controversies in this area more often than others. Examples include: school prayer, curriculum issues, and the use of school facilities by religious organizations. Read on to learn more about religious activities in public schools.

School 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 knell 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 to for religious instruction classes.

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

Graduation Prayers

School officials cannot mandate, organize, prayer at graduation, nor can school officials organize a baccalaureate mass or other religious ceremony.

In fact, 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; simply put, neither is permitted.

Curriculum

Content about the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, or other sacred texts taught as a form of history, ethics, or comparative religion is acceptable. However, a teacher could not 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

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 organizations is in accordance with policies that also allow nonreligious groups to use the facilities.

Student organized religious clubs are allowed to meet on school property before or after the school day.

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 purchase of secular textbooks for use in religious schools;
  • use of school facilities by religious organizations in accordance with policies that also allow nonreligious groups to use the facilities;
  • 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; and
  • permission for student organized religious clubs to meet on school property before or after the school day.

Examples of Prohibited Practices

In the past, the following practices have been prohibited by the courts:

  • sending public school teachers into private, sectarian schools to provide remedial instruction; and
  • 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

The complex nature of the intersection between religion and government makes it difficult to know what religious activities are allowed in public schools. If you are concerned with how your religious rights might conflict with school activities, then discuss this with an attorney. Speaking to a civil rights attorney will help your understanding of this very unsettled area of law.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified civil rights attorney
to help you protect your rights.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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