Freedom of Religious Expression in Public Schools

Freedom of religion and religious expression, especially within the public school system, has been a highly contested issue for decades. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution contains two clauses that affect this issue: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment Clause prohibits the federal government, or any state, from passing laws that establish an official religion; or any action that appears as preferring one religion over another.

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the federal government or any state from interfering with a person’s religious practice, though this freedom may be limited by civil or criminal law.

Over the past 50 years, a number of cases and court challenges have surfaced pertaining to religious liberties within the public school system. During the Clinton Administration, the Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, issued a “statement of principles” that outlined permissible religious expression in public schools. Since then, a number of states using the successful model of the Texas State Legislature have enacted anti-discrimination laws that protect a student’s right to religious expression.

Current legally protected rights of religious expression:

  1. Discrimination—School authorities may not discriminate against religious activity or speech.
  2. Bible Reading and Prayer—Students may read their Bibles or other Scriptures, say a prayer before meals and pray before tests.
  3. Discussions—Students may attempt to persuade their peers concerning religious topics, just as they may political topics. Harassment, however, (which is not defined) is not permissible.
  4. School Work—Students may use religious themes in their homework, artwork, or other assignments, and such work should be judged (graded) by ordinary academic standards.
  5. Literature—Students have the right to distribute religious literature (tracts, etc.) to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature.
  6. Religious Objections—Students may be excused from lessons that are objectionable on religious or other conscientious grounds.
  7. Clothing—Students may wear clothing depicting religious themes, and these messages may not be singled out for suppression. They are subject to the same rules as apply to comparable messages.
  8. Christian Groups—Students religious groups at public secondary schools have the same right of access to school facilities as is enjoyed by other comparable student groups.
  9. Student Meetings—Student meetings may include a prayer service, Bible reading, or other worship exercise.
  10. Access—Students may use the public address system, the school newspaper, and the school bulletin board to announce their meetings, on the same terms as other student groups. (This only applies to schools receiving federal funds.)
  11. Teaching—Schools may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture, the history of religion, the Bible-as-literature, and the role of religion in the United States and other countries. Schools are to be neutral with respect to religion. However, they may play an active role with respect to teaching civic values and virtue, and the moral code that holds us together as a community. Schools may not allow religious instruction by outsiders on school premises during the school day. However, school officials may dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction.

In the News

Prayer Ousted By More School Districts, City Councils in South Carolina

“As secular organizations continue to bully and threaten an increasing number of state, local and county institutions to do away with prayer by convincing them it is unconstitutional, there has been a spike in the number of school districts, city councils, and other government entities that are dropping the time-honored tradition.”

Read more


California Bill Threatens Religious Schools

A California state bill its sponsors say will prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity at private universities is threatening to expose faith-based schools to enormous legal threats, school officials warn…

Read more

Pennsylvania School Votes Prayer Out, Moment of Silence In

“School board members of a Pennsylvania high school have voted to replace prayer at this year’s graduation ceremony with a moment of silence.

Read more

California School Board Standing Firm

“A California school board is deciding to fight rather than flee by going to court to retain the right to pray before their meetings. Two years ago, in the Town of Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of the city council to have pre-meeting prayers.”

Read more

California School Sends Deputy To Warn 7-Year-Old About Bible Verses

“Liberty Counsel has some legal advice for an atheist in Georgia who opposed a public display of the Christian cross during Memorial Day. Officials at a California public grade school who dispatched a sheriff’s deputy to stop a 7-year-old from sharing Bible verses with his classmates because someone could be ‘offended’ now are being warned of ‘civil rights violations.'”

Read more

Wisconsin Student Allegedly Threatened with Failing Grade for Bible Reference
Religious Liberty and Religious Schools
Schools Bans Student Prayer Group And Christian-Led Anti-Bullying Program
WA: Attorneys: School Violated Student's First Amendment Rights
Professor Will Fight Charges Of ‘Proselytizing’
Will U.S. Supreme Court Determine Freedom Of Religious Universities?