As the school year gets underway, many parents, students, teachers, and coaches have questions about what they legally can and cannot do as it relates to their Christian faith. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit organization that defends the religious liberty of Christians, has compiled a helpful collection of guidance on our Constitutionally protected rights. Below is information related to K–12 taken directly from various resources produced by ADF. Next week we’ll be posting more information related specifically to college students.
Rights of Student and Parent
Your child has the right to pray at school, talk about God in-class assignments, start a religious club on campus that receives the same rights and resources as other clubs, and freely share their faith with others.
As a parent, you have the right to:
- Opt your children out of curriculum that would require them to violate your family’s religious beliefs.
- Depending on where you live, opt your children out of curriculum that would force them to violate your family’s religious beliefs.
- Depending on where you live, review the curriculum and teaching materials for any of your child’s classes.
- Opt your child out of any extracurricular activity.
- Depending on where you live, be notified if your child is enrolled in a course that includes sex education, family planning, homosexual themes, diversity issues, or extreme violence.
- Access your child’s record, including grades, disciplinary, and counseling proceedings.
- Remove your child on days of religious observance.
- Depending on where you live, receive the same tax credits and vouchers to attend religious schools that are also available for attending non-religious schools.
- Choose the school environment that best fits your child’s needs, whether public school, charter school, private school, or homeschool.
Teacher and Coach Rights
Teachers and coaches have the right to:
1. Engage in religious activities outside of non-instructional time. For example, teachers can form after-school Bible study groups, participate in prayer groups with other adults, and distribute literature to other adults for non-curricular activities on the same terms as all other events and activities.
2. Provide instruction related to religion as part of the curriculum. For example, teachers can use religious information in an objective manner and teach the Bible for its historical, cultural, or literary value.
3. Have some involvement in religious clubs. For example, teachers can allow students and athletes to lead prayer but can’t lead it themselves; exchange religious ideas or even have prayer meetings with one another, provided students aren’t present; and act as a faculty sponsor if all activities are led by students and the teacher or coach is only there to supervise.
Students have the right to express their faith through what they wear, such as a pro-life T-shirt or a cross. Schools can place some restrictions on what students can wear, but they can’t single out religious clothing. Students can wear shirts, pants, necklaces, bracelets, and other articles of clothing that display a religious symbol (i.e., cross) or religious message (including a Bible verse) as long as they meet the school’s dress code.
Schools can ban any clothing with a message that (1) materially and substantially interfere with the operation of the school; (2) is lewd, vulgar, or objectively obscene (i.e., contains profanity or sexual content); or (3) promotes violence or drug use.
Schools cannot ban clothing or accessories because their messages are religious or contain a religious symbol or picture, or because others may find their religious message, symbol, or picture offensive.
The law is less clear, however, on (1) clothing that’s “religious” or “proselytizing”; (2) clothing that’s “offensive,” “disrespectful,” or restricted by some other subjective criteria; and (3) “promoting the superiority” of one set of beliefs over any other.
Given the central role religion plays in many students’ lives, it’s natural they’d desire to express their religious viewpoints in class discussions and assignments. Students can express their religious beliefs in classroom discussions, homework, projects, artwork, and all other school assignments so long as it is relevant and meets the requirements of the assignment.
Schools cannot prohibit, punish, or give a lower grade to a student who includes religious viewpoints in a class assignment.
Watch out for assignment instructions restricting the discussion of religious beliefs, religious figures, or Bible passages, and for school officials telling students, they can’t reference religion in an assignment or include religious images in pictures or artwork.
Many schools have told students they cannot pray around the flagpole before school or say a blessing over their food in the cafeteria. But the First Amendment protects all forms of religious expression, including prayer at school. Your children have the right to pray on their own or in groups during non-instructional time at school as long as it doesn’t significantly disrupt school activity.
Students can also engage in student-initiated, student-led prayer before or after practices, sporting events, or other school functions as long as such prayers are voluntary and not required by coaches or other school officials.
Schools cannot stop students from praying individually or in groups without evidence that the prayers would significantly disrupt the school environment (for example, making a student late for class). They also cannot require students to participate in prayer or any other religious activity.
Watch out for policies that prohibit prayer, proselytizing, or other religious activity during school or at school-sponsored events, and teachers or coaches who stop students from praying over meals or before or after games, practices, or other school events.
Graduation and Sporting Events
Students honored to speak at their graduation are encouraged to reflect on their time in school and acknowledge those who have affected their life. Many Christian students properly want to acknowledge God’s work in these speeches or even offer a short prayer. When a school follows the guidelines below, courts have found the First Amendment protects the right of religious students to express their faith at such events. Schools can designate a time at graduation, sporting events, or other school events for studentents to speak on a matter of their own choosing as long as (1) neutral criteria is used to select the student speaker (i.e., valedictorian, class president, or randomly selected from a list of eligible students), and (2) no school staff are involved with or review the speech.
Schools cannot designate time specifically for prayer, nor instruct a student to offer a prayer at graduation or any other school-sponsored event.
Students can express a religious viewpoint (such as reciting a Bible verse, describing how their Christian faith influenced them, or offering a prayer of blessing) when chosen to speak at a graduation ceremony or any other school event or activity on a topic of their choosing.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that the First Amendment protects not only the spoken word but also the distribution of literature, pamphlets, and other written materials. These materials provide an effective and non-intrusive way for Christian students to share their faith or pro-life beliefs with their classmates. Students can distribute religious literature before and after school, in between classes, and during lunch and recess unless the distribution substantially interferes with the activity of the school. They also have the right to post religious flyers on walls or in other designated locations if students have the right to post other, non-religious content in the same locations.
Schools can impose reasonable limits on literature distribution, such as the time, place, and manner of distribution, but those limits cannot be so restrictive that they would effectively ban literature distribution by students.
Schools cannot completely ban literature distribution by students, prohibit written materials because they are religious or proselytizing, or enact policies that give school officials the ability to prohibit materials they subjectively find to be “offensive” or “inconsistent with the school’s educational mission.”
Students can find strength and refuge when they join together to form religious clubs at school. The First Amendment and the Equal Access Act protect the right of students to form religious clubs at school and to receive the same benefits given to other non-curriculum clubs. Students have the right to form religious clubs and meet on campus if the school allows other non-curriculum clubs (such as a Key Club or Students Against Destructive Decisions). They have equal access to all school facilities, resources, and equipment available to other non-curriculum clubs and are allowed to promote their events and activities in the same manner other non-curriculum clubs are permitted.
Students can also invite outside speakers to attend and present at their meetings to the same extent other non-curriculum clubs are allowed, and condition membership and leadership positions on the basis of shared values to the same extent other groups can.
Schools cannot deny recognition to a club because it’s religious or denies a club any of the benefits or privileges given to other non-curriculum clubs. They also cannot force a religious club to include those who don’t share the group’s values unless they require that all groups are open under an “all comers” policy.
As a service to the community, many schools allow community organizations to distribute informational materials to students and parents regarding the services and activities they provide, and to use school facilities for their meetings and activities. Religious groups and churches have a First Amendment right to use these same methods to communicate their message to the public. If a school permits community groups to distribute flyers and literature to students, then religious community groups can distribute written materials on the same terms (e.g., through a take-home flyer program, school website, or literature rack).
Religious community groups can also use the facilities for meetings, worship services, student clubs, and other activities if a school permits community groups to use school facilities before or after school for meetings or events.
Schools cannot ban churches from distributing flyers promoting church-sponsored events while permitting non-religious community groups to promote their activities to students, nor can they ban religious community groups from using school facilities for their activities if they’ve opened their facilities for use to nonreligious groups.
Know Your Rights as a Christian in a Public School
Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator.