Does the establishment clause apply to students in a public school?
The establishment clause speaks to what government may or may not do. It does not apply to the private speech of students. School officials should keep in mind the distinction between government (in this case “school”) speech endorsing religion — which the establishment clause prohibits — and private (in this case “student”) speech endorsing religion, which the free-speech and free-exercise clauses protect.
Student religious expression may, however, raise establishment clause concerns when such expression takes place before a captive audience in a classroom or at a school-sponsored event. Students have the right to pray alone or in groups or to discuss their faith with classmates, as long as they aren’t disruptive or coercive. And they may express their religious views in class assignments or discussions, as long as it is relevant to the subject under consideration and meets the requirements of the assignment. But students don’t have a right to force a captive audience to participate in religious exercises.
It isn’t entirely clear under current law where teachers and administrators may draw a line limiting student religious expression before a captive audience in a classroom or school-sponsored event. In several recent cases, lower courts have deferred to the judgment of educators about when to limit the religious expression of students in a classroom or school setting. A general guide might be to allow students to express their religious views in a classroom or at a school event as long as they don’t ask the audience to participate in a religious activity, use the opportunity to deliver a proselytizing sermon, or give the impression that their views are supported by or endorsed by the school.