Federal Guidelines for Religion in Public Schools

Federal guidelines establish the rules for religious expression in public schools. Photo Credit: Caiaimage/Robert Daly/OJO+/Getty Images

A frequent topic that comes up on this website is that of religious expression in public schools. Who can speak about religion? What are the boundaries? Is it okay for teachers to be involved? Can school districts prevent students from wearing shirts or jewelry with religious themes? Believe it or not, all of that information is standard across the board, thanks to federal guidelines on religious expression in public schools.

Please keep in mind that these guidelines are for the United States only - if you live in another country, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the laws and regulations there. Also, if you attend a private school in the US, these guidelines may not apply to you.

Back in 1995, US Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sent every school superintendent in America this set of guidelines to follow, and those rules are still in place today. This is a brief summary of what those guidelines say and what they mean - for a more thorough and detailed explanation, please be sure to read Riley's statement at Religious Guidelines in Public Schools.

Student Prayer and Religious Discussion

Prayer and discussion of religion by students is not prohibited. Students are welcome to engage in these activities as long as they do so in a non-disruptive manner. Students may also attempt to persuade other students about their beliefs -- just like they can attempt to persuade them about political matters -- but they may not engage in harassment of a particular group.

In other words, if Joey wants to tell Jane about his religion, he's welcome to -- but what he can't do is follow her around and shout that she's going to burn in hell because she believes differently than he does. Before or after-school activities, such as "See You at the Pole" events, are permitted, as long as they take place without the encouragement (or discouragement) of school officials and teachers.

Finally, the right to share religious beliefs does not include the right to a captive audience -- Joey can tell Jane about his religion, but Jane is not required to sit and hear about it.

Teaching About Religion

Public schools are not permitted to teach religious courses, but they are allowed to teach about religion. This includes the use of works like the Bible and Koran as literature. It's also allowed for them to teach about the influence that religion has had on such things as history, art, music, and culture. For instance, an English Lit teacher might choose to teach Dante's Inferno or Milton's Paradise Lost, both of which would require a basic understanding of Biblical concepts.

Homework and Other Assignments

Students are permitted to express their beliefs in their assignments. For example, if Joey wants to paint an image of Mary Magdalene in art class, he is welcome to -- but Jane is also permitted to paint an image of Cernunnos if she chooses. Teachers may not discriminate when it comes to grades, based solely on the religious content of a student's assignment. In other words, even work with a religious theme has to be judged by its academic merit, just like every other piece of student work.

Student Clothing

When it comes to clothing, schools get a lot of leeway from the government as far as setting dress code. Ideally, no articles of student clothing should be disruptive. Students can wear clothing that contains religious messages, but only within the confines of the "not disruptive" rules. In other words, Joey can wear a shirt that says, "I love Jesus," but he probably can't wear a shirt that says, "Kill all the Muslims, Wiccans and Jews.

Religious Excusals

The Federal government gives the power to the state and to individual school districts to determine whether or not students can be excused from lessons that are "objectionable" to the student on religious grounds. If Joey wished to be excused from a lesson -- for example, science class is teaching evolution, and he's a devout believer in Creationism -- then this is something that has to be taken up at a district level, and not a federal one.

Administrative Neutrality

Teachers and other school officials are considered representatives of the state, so the establishment clause prohibits them from being involved with student religious activity. They're not permitted to solicit, encourage, or participate in any sort of religious activity with the students. On the flip side, they are also not permitted to discourage or prevent any activity because of its religious content. If Joey wants to form a Christian Student Club, he can do so, but teachers aren't permitted to be involved. Likewise, if Jane wants to form a Pagan Student Association, those same teachers may not prevent her from doing so.

Finally, the Equal Access Act is designed to make sure that student religious activities are afforded the same access in public schools facilities as non-religious groups. Be sure to read about the rights of Pagan students if you've got a child attending public school.