Tuesday, August 22, 2017

This Fall, Know Your Religious Liberty Rights in Public Schools

Written by Don Byrd

A new school year is here! It’s the perfect time to remind Americans of all faiths that, despite what you may hear at times, our U.S. Constitution strongly protects the religious liberty of public school students. Some try to argue that religion has been removed from our schools, but nothing could be further from the truth. 

About this time last year, then-Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, Brent Walker, penned a column making exactly that point. He noted that students can engage in many forms of religious expression. Here was his excellent list:

• Students may pray – alone or in a group, silently or even out loud – as long as it is voluntary, non-disruptive and respects the rights of other students not to participate.

• Students may form religious clubs in secondary schools when other non-curriculum related groups are allowed. Outside adults may not lead or regularly attend club meetings, and teachers may be present only to monitor the meetings.

• Students may display and communicate religious messages – on their clothing and orally – in the same way other messages are allowed. Generally, they may wear religious garb, such as yarmulkes and headscarves, as well.

• Students may distribute religious literature, under the same rules as other material may be distributed. This right is subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, such as requiring material to be placed on a table rather than handed out.

• Students may speak to and persuade other students about religious topics, including inviting them to religious services and events. But, such speech cannot be allowed to turn into religious harassment. A “no thanks” must end the conversation.

• Students are allowed to include religious themes in their schoolwork and homework assignments, as long as those religious references are germane to the assignment.

• Students may learn about religion where the topic naturally arises in the curriculum. The teaching should be academic, not devotional, and pursue an educational goal. In other words, schools may expose students to religious views but may not impose any particular view.

• A religious holiday may be an occasion to teach about that particular religion, but not celebrated as a religious event. Along the same lines, religious music may be played or sung and sacred artwork observed and appreciated as long as it serves an educational goal.

• Students may be excused from lessons that are objectionable based on religious convictions, and they must be excused if the school does not have a compelling interest in requiring all students to participate.

• Teachers and other school personnel may meet with one another for Bible study and prayer, as long as such gatherings are voluntary and outside the classroom (in the teachers’ lounge, for example) during lunch breaks or other free time.

You might have noticed that some of those “can”s also include restrictions. For example, students *can* include religious themes in homework without fear of penalty, *as long as* the religious references are relevant to the assignment. Students *may* wear religious messages on clothing, *but only to the extent that* other messages are allowed. 

That kind of give-and-take is not symptomatic of a declining religious liberty. Just the opposite. Those restrictions protect against the improper promotion of religion by school officials. Students and parents of all faiths should be confident in knowing both that they need not leave their religion outside the front door of the school, and also that they can attend public school free from any fear of religious coercion, favoritism, or indoctrination. Both sides of that religious liberty coin are expressions of our rights under the First Amendment!

This school year, let’s be mindful of the ways that we can support religious liberty for all, both by celebrating the right to religious expression where appropriate, and also by maintaining an educational environment that is religiously neutral and respectful of students of all faith perspectives.

Read Brent’s entire column here.

For more information on this topic:
Visit the BJC’s Religion and Public Schools Resources
View the BJC’s guide to religious liberty in public schools



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