Introduction: “Avoiding Censorship in Schools” | Religious Expression in the Public Schools | Sex and Sexuality Education | Harassment and Hate Speech | Student Publications | Student Expression: Web Pages, Dress Codes, and More | Access to Information on the Internet | Teachers’ Rights | Parents’ Rights


The First Amendment guarantees of religious liberty include the freedom to believe or not to believe, and to observe one’s faith openly without government interference. Freedom of speech encompasses religious as well as secular speech, but the Establishment Clause imposes limitations on government endorsement of religion that has important implications for religious speech and observance in public schools.

Thomas Jefferson described the Establishment Clause as erecting “a wall of separation between church and state.” Government neutrality toward religion is increasingly important with the proliferation of diverse religious beliefs, and schools are among the most important places where this principle is tested.

Public school teachers, principals, administrators, and other personnel may not:

  • promote a particular religion as being superior to any other,
  • promote religion in general as superior to a secular approach to life,
  • be antagonistic to religion in general or to a particular religious belief in particular
  • be antagonistic to secularism, or
  • do things to advance or inhibit religion.

This does not imply that the public schools may not teach about religion. Indeed, “the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, and the like.” Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 42 (1980)(per curiam). Schools may teach about religion, explain the tenets of various faiths, discuss the role of religion in history, literature, science and other endeavors, and the like, as long as it has a secular purpose to promote educational goals, and there is no effort to promote or inhibit any religious belief.

School-Sponsored Prayer: Prayer and Bible-reading have long been excluded from the public schools. Engel v. Vitale (1962) and School Dist. V. Schempp (1963). Even a moment of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer,” is impermissible if its purpose is to promote prayer. Wallace v. Jaffree (1985).

Student-Led Prayer: In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe (2000) the Court held that student-led prayer at school-sponsored football games was unconstitutional, because the circumstances implied official endorsement of religion.

While the case leaves open the possibility that student-initiated prayer is permissible under some circumstances, it is clear that schools must exercise care to avoid the appearance of promoting religion. The difficulty in finding the right balance is clear from the split in opinon in the lower courts. In the same month, a federal appellate panel in Georgia upheld student-initiated “prayer or other personal message” at graduation because the administration had no control over the student’s statement, and a district court in Illinois temporarily banned a student-led prayer at graduation because of “the degree of school involvement.”

Perhaps the most unusual case in the recent past involved a first grader who was not allowed to read a story from The Beginner’s Bible for an assignment in which students were asked to read their favorite stories aloud in class. Equally divided, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals sitting en banc, upheld the teacher’s exercise of judgment, rather than confronting the question of the place of religion in school. (Hood v. Medford Board Of Education, 3rd Cir., 2000).

Religious Holidays: Holiday observations in public schools have been a persistent bone of contention in many communities. Although schools may teach about the religious beliefs underlying religious holidays and may celebrate secular aspects of such holidays, schools may not observe holidays as religious events or promote such observance among their students.

Religious Messages: Schools may not permanently display religious messages like the Ten Commandments. Stone v. Graham (1980). They may, however, display religious symbols in teaching about religion, as long as they are used as teaching aids on a temporary basis as part of an academic program.

Teaching of evolution: In Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) the Supreme Court struck down a state law prohibiting teachers in public schools from teaching “the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals,” on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause of the constitution. The decision was reaffirmed in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), which required evolution to be taught alongside “creation science.” The Court rejected the state’s alleged secular purpose to protect academic freedom, finding it a “sham.”

Religious Clothing and Symbols: Religious clothing and symbols, if not disruptive, are a protected form of expression. Even schools with dress codes ordinarily make an exception for religious articles.

Released Time: Students may be dismissed from school for off-campus religious instruction, provided that the schools do not encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who do not attend. Zorach v. Clauson (1952).

Use of Public School Facilities by Religious Groups: Under a 1993 Supreme Court ruling, public schools that permit their facilities to be used by community groups are not permitted to discriminate against religious groups. Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District (1993). This holding was recently reaffirmed in the context of a religiously-affiliated after-school program that sought to use public school facilities. Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001).

Religious Exemptions from State Education Law: When public education requirements severely conflict with sincerely-held religious beliefs, the courts have fashioned a remedy to address the conflict. For example, in Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), Amish families challenged a state requirement that children be enrolled in school until the age of 16. The parents claimed that they would be unable to raise their children in the Amish faith, which repudiates most aspects of modern life, if their children were required to attend school outside the Amish community past the eighth grade. The Supreme Court upheld their right to educate their children at home under the circumstances of this case, but subsequent cases cast some doubt about how far this doctrine can be extended. (Employment Division v. Smith, 1990.)

The Equal Access Act (20 U.S.C. §§4071-74), adopted by Congress in 1984, was intended to prevent discrimination against student extra-curricular activities “on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech” at such student-run events. The Act applies to any “public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance” and which allows “noncurriculum related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional time.” In 1990, in Board of Education v. Mergens, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Act, affirming the right of “equal access” to student groups without regard to the “religious, social, philosophical or other content” of their activities.

In practice, the Act has mixed results. In one case, students sued for the right to organize a support group for gays and lesbians. A federal court rejected the school’s claim that any discussion of same-sex relationships and safer-sex would conflict with its policy to teach “abstinence-only until marriage,” and ordered the school to allow the group to meet. However in another case in California, a school district decided to ban all extracurricular clubs from campus rather than allow formation of a club called Christian Athletes.

U.S. Department of Education, Guidelines on Religious Expression in the Public Schools: Guidelines were originally adopted in 1995 and updated since then to provide every school district in America with a statement of principles addressing the extent to which religious expression and activity are permitted in the public school. The guidelines affirm two obligations imposed on school officials: 1) schools may not forbid students acting on their own from expressing their personal religious beliefs; 2) schools may not discriminate against private religious expression by students, but must instead give students the same right to engage in religious activity and discussion as they have to engage in other comparable activity. Schools are strongly encouraged to develop their own district-wide policy regarding religious expression and to engage parents, teachers, various faith communities and the broader community.