Religion and Education

Religious beliefs must be accommodated in schools as well as in the workplace. Though the separation of church and state prohibits government-sponsored religion, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment right to free speech to require a policy of neutrality in schools. Religious activity in which private individuals initiate and participate on school premises is protected free speech.

As a condition of accepting public funding, schools are prohibited from enacting any policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools. In fact, schools are required to certify, in writing, to the U.S. Department of Education that no such policy exists.

Can a teacher pick a student to lead a morning prayer?

No. School officials and employees are prohibited from deciding whether prayer will be included in school activities. Students, however, are not prohibited from praying.

When can a student pray in school?

According to the Supreme Court, "students may pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other conversation or speech."

Sidebar: Schools can limit prayer or other religious practices during instructional time.

Can a prayer be said at the beginning of a sporting event?

Only if the person is a student who has been picked without regard to whether or not he or she will say a prayer. Students who add religious expression to their speech, over which they alone have control of the content, does not mean the school is participating in or condoning a religious activity. The student is acting as a private individual.

TIP: Graduation speakers, who are not school officials, can say a prayer or utter religious phrases. Schools should include a disclaimer in the graduation program stating that the speaker's content is entirely his or her own and not endorsed by the school.

What other religious practices can students engage in other than prayer?

Students may read the Bible or other religious materials, gather with other students to discuss religious matters or pray, say grace before a meal and participate in religious clubs.

Can teachers organize a religious study group among themselves to meet during lunch?

Yes. Teachers are only prohibited from participating in religious activities while in their official capacities. However, before or after school and at lunch, for example, teachers are free to express their religious beliefs.

Do "moments of silence" violate the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state?

No. During a moment of silence, the student is free to pray, or not, as he or she chooses. Teachers, however, cannot encourage or discourage either action.

Can my child include references to scripture in his or her book report?

Yes. Students may express their religious beliefs in their assignments, homework and artwork. Oral assignments may also include religious expression.

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