Every year, it seems there is confusion about what students can and cannot do in public schools regarding their religion. Since most of you reading this are Christian, I am writing from that perspective, although these rights also extend to other religions. I’m not a lawyer, but I am summarizing the information found in a U.S. Department of Education document. While the document addresses lots of other aspects of religion in the public schools, I am only sharing the gist of rules that apply to students.
The truth is your kids are actually allowed to do much more than most people think. It’s important to realize that teachers and administrators may not have read this document and may assume rules that may or may not actually exist. (If you need to access the article for a discussion with school personnel, the title is Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.)
Here’s what the U.S. Department of Education has to say about possible religious activities in public schools.
- Students may pray and read their Bibles and other religious materials when not engaged in school activities or instruction. In other words, during lunch, recess or other times when students are given the freedom to engage in personal activities, your kids can pray, read their Bibles or a Christian book. They can’t disrupt others, but hopefully they wouldn’t do that anyway.
- Students may pray and study religious materials with fellow students during lunch, recess or other times when students are allowed to choose activities and interact with one another. The one thing to watch here is that there is some discrepancy on the part of the school to allow any freedom of choice during the school day. If it is allowed though, it appears they cannot differentiate between allowing secular or religious activities.
- Students can organize prayer groups, religious clubs etc. as an extracurricular activity if students are allowed to form such groups for secular activities. This one is a little trickier, because it gives the administration the right to limit any extracurricular activity from using the facilities or advertising meetings. If they allow secular groups to do so, however, they cannot discriminate against religious groups who want the same rights. The school may choose to disclaim sponsorship of any group, but they must be careful to not make it appear as if it is only against religious groups.
- Students may express their religious beliefs in any writing, art or other assignment where doing so makes sense and cannot be discriminated against for doing so. This one can get tricky. A teacher has latitude to say an argument is weak or the grammar is bad and take off points for that even if it is a cover for their disagreement with the religious views. It would be hard to fight those types of comments. Most teachers, however, are pretty open to allowing their students some freedom of expression and in some areas may actually agree with the students’ Christian ideals.
- Schools can allow students to be released for religious instruction or activities. This one is at the discretion of the school, so don’t expect it to be allowed in most places.
- Student speakers cannot be chosen based on their religious beliefs or lack thereof. This is another one that can go either way. In general, if the school allows the student freedom of expression, they aren’t considered responsible for what the student may or may not say and can include religious content. If the school insists on prior approval of what will be said, they can and most likely will remove all religious content so as not to be seen as endorsing religion. On the other hand, they also cannot allow pre approved content to be anti religious either.
Go over these regulations with your kids. Discuss the most impactful ways for them to be salt and light in their school. Make sure they aren’t afraid to admit whose they are at school. They are still allowed to be a Christian light in public school. (Note: Private schools are not bound by these rules. You will need to contact school administrators for their rules.)