Frequently Asked Questions – Religion

The First Amendment says nothing about ‘separation of church and state’ or a ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ Where did this idea come from? Is it really part of the law?

Although the words ‘separation of church and state’ do not appear in the First Amendment, the establishment clause was intended to separate church from state. When the First Amendment was adopted in 1791, the establishment clause applied only to the federal government, prohibiting the federal government from any involvement in religion. By 1833, all states had disestablished religion from government, providing protections for religious liberty in state constitutions. In the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the establishment clause to the states through the 14th Amendment. Today, the establishment clause prohibits all levels of government from either advancing or inhibiting religion.

The establishment clause separates church from state, but not religion from politics or public life. Individual citizens are free to bring their religious convictions into the public arena. But the government is prohibited from favoring one religious view over another or even favoring religion over non-religion.

Our nation’s founders disagreed about the exact meaning of “no establishment” under the First Amendment; the argument continues to this day. But there was and is widespread agreement that preventing government from interfering with religion is an essential principle of religious liberty. All of the Framers understood that “no establishment” meant no national church and no government involvement in religion. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that without separating church from state, there could be no real religious freedom.

The first use of the “wall of separation” metaphor was by Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island in 1635. He said an authentic Christian church would be possible only if there was “a wall or hedge of separation” between the “wilderness of the world” and “the garden of the church.” Any government involvement in the church, he believed, corrupts the church.

Then in 1802, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, wrote: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

The Supreme Court has cited Jefferson’s letter in key cases, beginning with a polygamy case in the 19th century. In the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education, the Court cited a direct link between Jefferson’s “wall of separation” concept and the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

Is it constitutional to teach about religion in a public school?

Yes. In the 1960s school-prayer cases that prompted rulings against state-sponsored school prayer and devotional Bible reading, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated that public school education may include teaching about religion. In Abington v. Schempp, Associate Justice Tom Clark wrote for the Court:

“[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

What general principles should public schools and religious communities follow when entering into a cooperative arrangement?

In these guidelines, a “cooperative arrangement” is defined as a shared participation in specific programs and activities in accordance with a written agreement. Before entering into a cooperative arrangement, public schools and religious communities should understand and accept the following principles:

1. Under the First Amendment, public schools must be neutral concerning religion in all of their activities. School officials must take the necessary steps to ensure that any cooperative activities that take place are wholly secular. Persons invited to address students during the school day shall be advised of this requirement and must agree to abide by it before being allowed access to students.

2. Students have the right to engage in, or decline to engage in, religious activities at their own initiative, so long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. School districts are urged to adopt policies that reflect recent consensus statements on current law concerning religion in public schools. “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law,” the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines on “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” and other consensus guidelines are available: Write to the First Amendment Center Online to request copies.

3. Cooperative programs between religious institutions and the public schools are permissible only if:

  • Participation in programs is not limited to religious groups. That is, schools must be open to participation by all responsible community groups. Qualifications should not be established which have the practical effect of including only religious groups. Eligibility shall be stated in writing.
  • A student’s grades, class ranking or participation in any school program will not be affected by his or her willingness to participate or not participate in a cooperative program with a religious institution.
  • Student participation in any cooperative program may not be conditioned on membership in any religious group, acceptance or rejection of any religious belief, or participation (or refusal to participate) in any religious activity.

What is the ‘Lemon test’ for religious mottos and displays in public settings?

In its 1971 decision Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court set forth a three-pronged inquiry commonly known as the Lemon test. To pass this test, thereby allowing the display or motto to remain, the government conduct (1) must have a secular purpose, (2) must have a principal or primary effect that does not advance or inhibit religion, and (3) cannot foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

Aren’t the Ten Commandments posted in the U.S. Supreme Court chamber?

No, but multiple pieces of artwork in the Supreme Court building, including the courtroom, show the historical significance of the Ten Commandments in a context that puts it on par with other influential laws from numerous cultural backgrounds. None of those artworks includes the actual text of the Ten Commandments, although four commandments are partly visible in Hebrew letters in one image. It is perhaps notable that those specific commandments, Nos. 6 to 10, are totally secular in nature, unlike the first few commandments, which are explicitly sectarian.

Courtroom friezes portray Moses as one of 18 historic lawgivers. He is given equal prominence with lawgivers from a variety of religious backgrounds, including Islam, Confucianism, sun worship, and both Egyptian and Greco-Roman paganism. While Moses is shown holding the tables of the Ten Commandments, Muhammad is shown holding the Quran, the primary source of Islamic law, and the first pharaoh, Menes, is shown holding the ankh, an Egyptian mythological symbol representing eternal life. Other figures are shown holding secular legal documents. England’s 12th-century King John is shown holding the Magna Carta, which he signed, while the Dutch legal scholar and statesman Hugo Grotius is shown holding his 1625 book, Concerning the Law of War and Peace, one of the first books on international law.

The frieze also includes Greco-Roman-style allegorical figures, including Equity, Philosophy, Right of Man, Liberty and Peace. To see an actual image of this frieze, visit this page on the Supreme Court’s Web site.

A separate frieze at the Supreme Court shows a single tablet containing the Roman numerals 1 to 10, but no text. The Ten Commandments are usually portrayed as being on two tablets of stone; so the single tablet with Roman numerals does not necessarily represent the Ten Commandments, and has been interpreted to represent ancient laws generally. The bottom of one door to the courtroom has a carving of two tablets with the Roman numerals 1 to 10, but no text.

Sculptures above the east entrance to the Supreme Court building again portray Moses (holding blank tablets) as one of three major Eastern lawgivers, the others being Confucius and Solon, portrayed with numerous other allegorical figures and the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. Moses is at the center of this group, above the words “Justice the Guardian of Liberty,” but according to a description of the East Pediment on the Supreme Court’s Web site, this art pays tribute to great civilizations and their laws, without specific mention of the Ten Commandments.

Other prominent art at the main entrance to the Supreme Court building includes no biblical references, and shows only the secular history of law. Images from that entrance and other parts of the Supreme Court building are online here.

Thus, the context of the portrayals of the Ten Commandments in Supreme Court art is arguably consistent with the Court’s treatment of Nativity scenes on public property in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984). Under that precedent, a predominantly religious display on public property violates the First Amendment principle against the state establishing religion, but a display that combines religious and secular elements to present a secular message is often allowable.

How should the Bible be included in the history curriculum?

The study of history offers a number of opportunities to study about the Bible. When studying the origins of Judaism, for example, students may learn different theories of how the Bible came to be. In a study of the history of the ancient world, students may learn how the content of the Bible sheds light on the history and beliefs of Jews and Christians — adherents of the religions that affirm the Bible as scripture. A study of the Reformation might include a discussion of how Protestants and Catholics differ in their interpretation and use of the Bible.

In U.S. history, there are natural opportunities for students to learn about the role of religion and the Bible in American life and society. For example, many historical documents — including many presidential addresses and congressional debates — contain biblical references. Throughout American history, the Bible has been invoked on various sides of many public-policy debates and in conjunction with social movements such as abolition, temperance and the civil rights movement. A government or civics course may include some discussion of the biblical sources for parts of our legal system.

Learning about the history of the Bible, as well as the role of the Bible in history, are appropriate topics in a variety of courses in the social studies.

What are the academic aims of a literature elective in Bible?

A literature elective in the Bible would focus on the Bible as a literary text. This might include the Bible as literature and the Bible in literature. A primary goal of the course would be basic biblical literacy — a grasp of the language, major narratives, symbols and characters of the Bible. The course might also explore the influence of the Bible in classic and contemporary poems, plays and novels.

Of course, the Bible is not simply literature — for a number of religious traditions it is scripture. A “Bible Literature” course, therefore, could also include some discussion of how various religious traditions understand the text. This would require that literature teachers be adequately prepared to address in an academic and objective manner the relevant, major religious readings of the text.

How should the Bible be included in the literature curriculum?

Academic study of the Bible in a public secondary school may appropriately take place in literature courses. Students might study the Bible as literature. They would examine the Bible as they would other literature in terms of aesthetic categories, as an anthology of narratives and poetry, exploring its language, symbolism and motifs. Students might also study the Bible in literature, the ways in which later writers have used Bible literature, language and symbols. Much drama, poetry and fiction contains material from the Bible.

How should teachers of a Bible elective be selected and what preparation will they require?

Teaching about the Bible, either in literature and history courses or in Bible electives, requires considerable preparation. School districts and universities should offer in-service workshops and summer institutes for teachers who are teaching about the Bible in literature and history courses.

When selecting teachers to teach Bible electives, school districts should look for teachers who have some background in the academic study of religion. Unless they have already received academic preparation, teachers selected to teach a course about the Bible should receive substantive in-service training from qualified scholars before being permitted to teach such courses. Electives in biblical studies should only be offered if there are teachers academically competent to teach them.

For the future, we recommend changes in teacher education to help ensure that study about religion, including the Bible, is done well in public schools. Literature and history teachers should be encouraged, as part of their certification, to take at least one course in religious studies that prepares them to teach about religions in their subject. Teachers who wish to teach a Bible elective should have taken college-level courses in biblical studies. Eventually, religious studies should become a certifiable field, requiring at least an undergraduate minor. State departments of education will need to set certification requirements, review curricula, and adopt appropriate academic standards for electives in religious studies.

Which interpretation of the Bible should be used?

The Bible is interpreted in many different ways, religious and secular. For example: In Judaism, the Hebrew Bible is typically read through the eyes of various rabbinic commentators. For Roman Catholics, the authoritative interpretation of the church is crucial for understanding the Bible. Some Christians and Jews use the findings of modern secular scholarship to interpret the Bible, while others reject some or all of modern scholarship.

Because there are many ways to interpret the Bible — religious and secular — public school teachers should expose students to a variety of interpretations. Teachers should allow students to encounter the text directly (like any primary source), and then draw on the resources of different religious and secular interpretative traditions for understanding it. To do this effectively requires the use of secondary sources that provide a discussion of the various religious and secular approaches to the Bible.

Which version of the Bible should be used?

Selecting a Bible for use in literature, history or elective Bible courses is important, since there is no single Bible. There is a Jewish Bible (the Hebrew Scriptures, or Tanakh), and there are various Christian Bibles — such as Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox — some with additional books, arranged in a different order. These differences are significant. For example, Judaism does not include the Christian New Testament in its Bible, and the Catholic Old Testament has 46 books while the Protestant has 39. There are also various English translations within each of these traditions.

To adopt any particular Bible — or translation — is likely to suggest to students that it is normative, the best Bible. One solution is to use a biblical sourcebook that includes the key texts of each of the major Bibles or an anthology of various translations.

At the outset and at crucial points in the course, teachers should remind students about the differences between the various Bibles and discuss some of the major views concerning authorship and compilation of the books of the Bible. Students should also understand the differences in translations, read from several translations, and reflect on the significance of these differences for the various traditions.

How do schools resolve the tension between freedom of speech and the need for discipline and control?

Preserving the speech rights of students and maintaining the integrity of public education are not mutually exclusive. Schools should model First Amendment principles by encouraging and supporting the rights of students to express their ideas in writings. On the other hand, students should not expect to have unfettered access to their classmates and should be prepared to abide by reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.

Schools must continue to maintain order, discipline and the educational mission of the school as they seek to accommodate the rights of the students. As a result, the free-speech rights of students are not co-extensive with the rights of adults. Hate speech and sexually explicit speech, though protected for adults, are probably not protected in a public school.

What do the courts say about the Bible in the public-school curriculum?

The Supreme Court has held that public schools may teach students about the Bible as long as such teaching is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” The cases are Abington School Dist. v. Schempp (1963) and Stone v. Graham (1980).

The Court has also held, in McCollum v. Board of Education in 1948, that religious groups may not teach religious courses on school premises during the school day.

Guidelines produced by the U.S. Department of Education in 1995, “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” reiterate that public schools “may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture” (emphasis in original Aug. 10, 1995, letter by Sec. Richard Riley). In keeping with the First Amendment’s mandate of government neutrality toward religion, any study of religion in a public school must be educational, not devotional. This principle holds true whether teaching about the Bible occurs in literature, history or any other class and whether the course is required or an elective.

A relatively small number of lower court decisions have dealt directly with the constitutionality of Bible classes in public schools. 1 These rulings show that the constitutionality of such classes is highly dependent on such factors as how the class is taught, who teaches it, and which instructional materials and lessons are used.

How the class is taught: Any class about the Bible must be taught in an objective, academic manner. 2 The class should neither promote nor disparage religion, nor should it be taught from a particular sectarian point of view. 3

Who teaches the class: A superintendent or school board should select teachers for a class about the Bible in the same manner all other teachers are selected. 4 School districts should not delegate the employment of such teachers to an outside committee that selects teachers based upon their religious beliefs or perspectives. 5 Teachers should be selected based upon their academic qualifications, rather than their religious beliefs or nonbeliefs. 6 Teachers should not be disqualified, however, simply because they have received religious training. 7

Funding for an elective course in religion may be provided by outside sources as long as the funds are contributed with “no strings attached.” 8

Which instructional materials are used: Decisions concerning instructional materials, including which translation of the Bible may be used, should remain under the control of the board of education. 9 The Bible may be used as a primary text, although it probably should not be the only text for a course. 10 Schools should avoid the use of instructional materials and lessons that are of a devotional nature, such as those used in a Sunday school. Supernatural occurrences and divine action described in the Bible may not be taught as historical fact in a public school. 11 The historicity of many persons and events described in the Bible may or may not be confirmed by evidence outside of biblical literature.

Notes

1 See Hall v. Board of Commissioners of Conecuh County, 656 F.2d 999 (5th Cir. 1981); Gibson v. Lee County School Board, 1 F. Supp.2d 1426 (M.D. Fla. 1998); Chandler v. James, 985 F. Supp. 1062 (M.D. Ala. 1997); Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, 933 F. Supp. 582 (N.D. Miss. 1996); Doe v. Human, 725 F. Supp. 1503 (W.D. Ark. 1989), aff’d without opinion, 923 F.2d 857 (8th Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 499 U.S. 922 (1991); Crockett v. Sorenson, 568 F. Supp. 1422 (W.D. Va. 1983); Wiley v. Franklin, 468 F. Supp. 133 (E.D. Tenn. 1979), supp. op., 474 F. Supp. 525 (E.D. Tenn. 1979), supp. op., 497 F. Supp. 390 (E.D. Tenn. 1980); Vaughn v. Reed, 313 F. Supp. 431 (W.D. Va. 1970). Compare Malnak v. Yogi, 592 F.2d 197 (3d Cir. 1979) (holding unconstitutional a school course in which students participated in transcendental meditation ceremonies).

2 Schempp, 374 U.S. at 225; Graham, 449 U.S. at 42; Hall, 656 F.2d at 1002; Gibson, 1 F. Supp. 2d at 1432; Chandler, 985 F. Supp. at 1063; Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 592; Human, 725 F. Supp. at 1508; Crockett, 568 F. Supp. at 1427; Wiley, 497 F. Supp. at 392, 394; Vaughn, 313 F. Supp. at 433; Malnak v. Yogi, 592 F.2d 197 (3d Cir. 1979) (holding unconstitutional a school course in which students participated in transcendental meditation ceremonies).

3 Wiley, 497 F. Supp. at 394. See also Gibson, 1 F. Supp.2d at 1433-34; Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 595.

4 Crockett, 568 F. Supp. at 1431. See also Gibson, 1 F. Supp.2d at 1433; Vaughn, 313 F. Supp. at 434.

5 Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 593-594; Wiley, 468 F. Supp. at 152.

6 Wiley, 468 F. Supp. at 152.

7 Wiley, 497 F. Supp. at 393.

8 Crockett, 568 F. Supp. at 1431. See also Gibson, 1 F. Supp.2d at 1433; Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 598-599.

9 Crockett, 568 F. Supp. at 1431. See also Gibson, 1 F. Supp.2d at 1433.

10 Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 595 & n.9, 600. See also Hall, 656 F.2d at 1002-1003; Wiley, 468 F. Supp. at 151; Chandler, 985 F. Supp. at 1063.

11 Gibson, 1 F. Supp.2d at 1434; Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 596, 600; Wiley, 474 F. Supp. at 531.

What is the difference between teaching about the Bible and religious indoctrination?

If teachers are to understand clearly how to teach about the Bible — and to feel safe doing so — then local school boards should adopt policies on the role of study about religion in the curriculum. The policy should reflect constitutional principles and current law, and should be developed with the full involvement of parents and other community members. Parents need to be assured that the goals of the school in teaching about religion, including teaching about the Bible, are academic and not devotional, and that academic teaching about the Bible is not intended to either undermine or reinforce the beliefs of those who accept the Bible as sacred scripture or of those who do not. Faith formation is the responsibility of parents and religious communities, not the public schools.

In recent years, a consensus has emerged among many religious and educational groups about the appropriate role for religion in the public school curriculum. In 1989, a coalition of 17 religious and educational organizations issued the following statements to distinguish between teaching about religion in public schools and religious indoctrination:

  • The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school may strive for student awareness of religions, but should not press for student acceptance of any religion.
  • The school may sponsor study about religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion.
  • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose, discourage, or encourage any particular view.
  • The school may educate about all religions, but may not promote or denigrate any religion.
  • The school may inform the student about various beliefs, but should not seek to conform him or her to any particular belief. (This consensus statement, as well as extensive guidelines and resources for teaching about religion in public schools, can be found in Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education, by Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas. Finding Common Ground is available at www.ASCD.org or from www.Amazon.com.)

When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion — which is unconstitutional — and teaching about religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair — which is constitutional.

Have there been any rulings yet on RLUIPA’s constitutionality?

Yes. So far, two federal district courts have considered the act’s land-use provisions. (Additional courts have considered RLUIPA’s institutionalized-persons provisions.) Both in Freedom Baptist Church v. Township of Middletown and Charles v. Verhagen, the courts found RLUIPA to be a constitutional exercise of congressional power. A number of other cases are currently pending, and it is likely that several will produce rulings from the various federal appellate courts. Once a case with convenient facts reaches the appropriate stage, the Supreme Court will almost certainly take the opportunity to rule definitively on RLUIPA’s constitutionality.

A public employee wishes to convert a fellow employee to his religion. Does he have a First Amendment right to proselytize?

Individuals do not forfeit First Amendment protections when they accept public-sector employment. Public employees also can speak about religious matters in the workplace to a certain degree, particularly if the speech is not communicated to the general public. However, the employer has a right to ensure that the employee’s religious speech does not disrupt office work or otherwise become distracting to other employees to the extent that it hinders productivity. Furthermore, no employee has the right to engage in religious harassment or create a hostile work environment. If the fellow employee tells his religious-minded co-worker to stop proselytizing, the co-worker should desist from further conversations on the subject.


My faith forbids me to work on Sundays, but my workplace is open and I’m expected to be there. What are my rights?

The free-exercise clause of the First Amendment says the government may not prevent individuals from freely practicing their religious faith. Also, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the major federal anti-discrimination law that covers virtually all public and private employers with 15 or more full-time employees, generally prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin or religion. Under Title VII, an employer must “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious practice unless doing so would create an “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”

Congress didn’t define “reasonably accommodate” and “undue hardship,” so that was left to the courts. In the 1977 ruling Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Supreme Court said requiring an employer “to bear more than a de minimis (minimal) cost” to accommodate an employee’s religious practice is an undue hardship. In 1986, the Court ruled that an employer meets its obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious practice when it demonstrates that it has offered a reasonable alternative to work requirements interfering with faith. See Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook.

Do students have the right to form religious or political clubs below the secondary level?

Probably not, but current law is unclear on this point. Although the Equal Access Act does not apply to public schools below the secondary level, some courts have held that the free-speech clause protects the right of middle school or elementary school students to form religious or political clubs on an equal footing with other student-initiated clubs. When the EAA was debated in Congress, many lawmakers expressed doubt that young children could form religious clubs that would be truly initiated and led by students. In addition, younger students are more likely to view religious clubs meeting at the school as “school sponsored.” For these and other reasons, Congress declined to apply equal access below the secondary level.

May administrators permit students to form religious or political clubs in middle schools, even if the law does not require that such clubs be allowed? Again, current law is unclear on this point. If school officials decide to allow middle school students to form religious or political clubs, then at the very least the school should have in place a clear policy and ground rules for the clubs, consistent with the EAA, and explain that the student clubs are not school-sponsored (see Good News Club v. School Dist. of Ladue, 8th Cir. 1994).

May religious leaders or other outside adults attend the meetings of student clubs?

Yes, if the students invite these visitors and if the school does not have a policy barring all guest speakers or outside adults from extracurricular club meetings. However, the Equal Access Act states that the nonschool persons “may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.”

May students form religious or political clubs in secondary public schools?

Yes, if the school allows other extracurricular (noncurriculum-related) groups. Although schools do not have to open or maintain a limited open forum, once they do, they may not discriminate against a student group because of the content of its speech.

The Equal Access Act (EAA), passed by Congress in 1984 and upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1990, makes it “unlawful for any public secondary school that receives federal funds and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”

The EAA covers student-initiated and student-led clubs in secondary schools with a limited open forum. According to the act, “non-school persons may not direct, conduct, or regularly attend activities of student groups.”

A “limited open forum” is created whenever a public secondary school provides an opportunity for one or more “noncurriculum related groups” to meet on school premises during noninstructional time. The forum created is said to be “limited” because only the school’s students can take advantage of it.

At my children’s school around Christmas, outside speakers have come in to teach about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Does the school have to give equal time to another speaker who might want to discuss why Christians celebrate Christmas?

The school probably does not have to give equal time for other outside speakers. But if the school is bringing speakers in to discuss holidays in December, it makes educational sense to include Christmas. All outside speakers should follow First Amendment guidelines for teaching about the holidays.

What should schools do in December?

Decisions about what to do in December should begin with the understanding that public schools may not sponsor religious devotions or celebrations; study about religious holidays does not extend to religious worship or practice.

Does this mean that all seasonal activities must be banned from the schools? Probably not, and in any event, such an effort would be unrealistic. The resolution would seem to lie in devising holiday programs that serve an educational purpose for all students — programs that make no students feel excluded or forcibly identified with a religion not their own.

Holiday concerts in December may appropriately include music related to Christmas, Hanukkah, and other religious traditions, but religious music should not dominate. Any dramatic productions should emphasize the cultural aspects of the holidays. Conversely, Nativity pageants or plays portraying the Hanukkah miracle would not be appropriate in the public school setting.

Teachers may also teach about religious holidays in the classroom, but they must be alert to the distinction between teaching about such holidays, which is permissible, and celebrating them, which is not. Guest speakers also can help teachers present the appropriate information, but only if they understand their role as informational, not devotional, in nature.

In short, while recognizing the holiday season, none of the school activities in December should have the purpose, or effect, of promoting or inhibiting religion.

May a teacher refuse to teach certain materials in class if she feels the curriculum infringes on her personal beliefs?

Generally, teachers must instruct their students in accordance with the established curriculum. For example, the 9th Circuit ruled in 1994 against a high school biology teacher who had challenged his school district’s requirement that he teach evolution, as well as its order barring him from discussing his religious beliefs with students. In the words of the court, “[a] school district’s restriction on [a] teacher’s right of free speech in prohibiting [the] teacher from talking with students about religion during the school day, including times when he was not actually teaching class, [is] justified by the school district’s interest in avoiding [an] Establishment Clause violation.” (Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School Dist., 9th Cir. 1994)

More recently, a state appeals court ruled again that a high school teacher did not have a First Amendment right to refuse to teach evolution in a high school biology class (LeVake v. Independent School Dist. No. 656, Minn. App. 2001). The teacher had argued that the school district had reassigned him to another school and another course because it wanted to silence his criticism of evolution as a viable scientific theory. The state appeals court rejected that argument, pointing out that the teacher could not override the established curriculum.

Other courts have similarly found that teachers do not have a First Amendment right to trump school district decisions regarding the curriculum (Clark v. Holmes, 7th Cir. 1972, Webster v. New Lenox School Dist. No. 122, 7th Cir. 1990). One court wrote: “the First Amendment has never required school districts to abdicate control over public school curricula to the unfettered discretion of individual teachers.” (Kirkland v. Northside Independent School Dist., 5th Cir. 1989)

More recently, the 4th Circuit ruled that a teacher had “no First Amendment right to insist on the makeup of the curriculum.” (Boring v. Buncombe County Bd. of Education, 1998)


May states be required to grant exemptions for business owners whose Sabbath requires them to close their business on another day?

No. In Braunfeld v. Brown (1961) the Supreme Court held that observance of a Sabbath was an individual’s choice, and that a person was not discriminated against or disadvantaged by the state for its decision to require the closing of businesses on a day other than that individual’s Sabbath. States may choose to allow exemptions for certain individuals, but they may not be required to do so.

May teachers wear religious jewelry in the classroom?

Most experts agree that teachers are permitted to wear unobtrusive jewelry, such as a cross or a Star of David. But they should not wear clothing with a proselytizing message (e.g., a “Jesus Saves” T-shirt).

May teachers and administrators pray or otherwise express their faith while at school?

As employees of the government, public school teachers and administrators are subject to the establishment clause and thus required to be neutral concerning religion while carrying out their duties. That means, for example, that school officials do not have the right to pray with or in the presence of students during the school day.

Of course, teachers and administrators — like students — bring their faith with them through the schoolhouse door each morning. Because of the First Amendment, however, school officials who wish to pray or engage in other religious activities — unless they are silent — should do so outside the presence of students.

If a group of teachers wishes to meet for prayer or scriptural study in the faculty lounge during free time in the school day or before or after school, most legal experts see no constitutional reason why they should not be permitted to do so, as long as the activity is outside the presence of students and does not interfere with their duties or the rights of other teachers.

When not on duty, of course, educators are free like all other citizens to practice their faith. But school officials must refrain from using their position in the public school to promote their outside religious activities.

The U.S. Department of Education put it this way in its 2003 guidelines on prayer in public schools:

“When acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, teachers, school administrators, and other school employees are prohibited by the Establishment Clause from encouraging or discouraging prayer, and from actively participating in such activity with students. Teachers may, however, take part in religious activities where the overall context makes clear that they are not participating in their official capacities. Before school or during lunch, for example, teachers may meet with other teachers for prayer or Bible study to the same extent that they may engage in other conversation or nonreligious activities. Similarly, teachers may participate in their personal capacities in privately sponsored baccalaureate ceremonies.”


Are state holidays constitutional when they are directly tied to some religious observance?

The Supreme Court has declined to address this issue, though the lower courts strongly favor the constitutionality of such holidays. The 9th Circuit in 1991 upheld legislation making Good Friday a state holiday in Cammack v. Waihee, reasoning that the absence of a major traditional holiday in the spring created a state interest in decreeing one, and that it made sense for the legislature to select a day that would already be used by the majority of citizens as a holiday. This decision set the stage for the 4th and 6th Circuits to issue similar rulings. The 7th Circuit disagreed in Metzl v. Leininger (1994), holding that because Good Friday is an exclusively Christian holiday that has in no way been secularized, as have Christmas and Easter, its elevation to the status of a state holiday was unconstitutional because it sent a message of endorsement to the public, even if the practical result was neither to advance nor inhibit religion. The holding in Metzl did allow for a finding of constitutionality, however, if the legislature would merely make the effort to advance a secular reasoning for the case.

Has the Supreme Court defined ‘religion’?

Although it has attempted to create standards to differentiate religious beliefs and actions from similar nonreligious beliefs, the Supreme Court has never articulated a formal definition for religion. Given the diversity of Americans’ religious experience since the Constitution was created, a single comprehensive definition has proved elusive.

In 1890, the Supreme Court in Davis v. Beason expressed religion in traditional theistic terms: “[T]he term ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will.”

In the 1960s, the Court expanded its view of religion. In its 1961 decision Torcaso v. Watkins, the Court stated that the establishment clause prevents government from aiding “those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.” In a footnote the Court clarified that this principle extended to “religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God … Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

In its 1965 ruling United States v. Seeger, the Court sought to resolve disagreement between federal circuit courts over interpretation of the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1948. The case involved denial of conscientious objector status to individuals who based their objections to war on sources other than a supreme being, as specifically required by the statute. The Court interpreted the statute as questioning “[w]hether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies for the exemption. Where such beliefs have parallel positions in the lives of their respective holders we cannot say that one is ‘in relation to a Supreme Being’ and the other is not.”

Welsh v. United States represented another conscientious-objector case under the same statute. The Court in this 1970 decision went one step further and essentially merged religion with deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs. The Court suggested individuals could be denied exemption only if “those beliefs are not deeply held and those whose objection to war does not rest at all upon moral, ethical, or religious principle but instead rests solely upon consideration of policy, pragmatism, or expediency.”

Following the expansive view of religion expressed in Seeger and Welsh, the Court in its 1972 ruling involving the Amish and compulsory school attendance suggested a shift back, to a more exclusive definition. The majority opinion in Wisconsin v. Yoder indicated that the free-exercise clause applied only to “a ‘religious’ belief or practice,” and “the very concept of ordered liberty precludes allowing every person to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests.”

The Court in its 1981 decision Thomas v. Review Board further expressed its reluctance to protect philosophical values. The Indiana Supreme Court had ruled that a decision by a Jehovah’s Witness to quit his job after he was transferred to a weapons-making facility was a “personal philosophical choice rather than a religious choice” and did not “rise to the level of a first amendment claim.” In overturning the Indiana decision, Chief Justice Warren Burger cautiously stated, “[o]nly beliefs rooted in religion are given special protection to the exercise of religion.” The Court found the worker’s actions to be motivated by his religious beliefs.

Few have been satisfied by the Court’s attempts to define religion. Many of the Court’s definitions use the word “religion” to describe religion itself. In other cases, the Court’s explanations seem to provide little useful guidance.

What about distribution of fliers from religious groups about events or programs for youth?

Although outside groups generally have no right to distribute religious materials on campus, flyers from religious groups may be another matter. If a school allows outside groups such as the Girl Scouts to send flyers home with students about programs for youth, some courts have ruled that schools may not deny that privilege to a religious group. *


* See Hills v. Scottsdale S.D. County Pub. Schools, 9th Cir. 2003; Rusk v. Crestview Local School Dist., 6th Cir. 2004; Child Evangelism Fellowship v. Mont. Co. Public Schools, 4th Cir. 2004.

May public schools and religious communities enter into cooperative agreements to help students with such programs as tutoring?

Yes, but only if appropriate constitutional safeguards are in place. Remember, public schools must remain neutral among religions and between religion and nonreligion. For that reason, religious groups must refrain from proselytizing students during any cooperative programs with public schools. Participation or nonparticipation by students in such cooperative programs should not affect the student’s academic ranking or ability to participate in other school activities. In addition, cooperative programs may not be limited to religious groups, but must be open to all responsible community groups.

For more detailed guidelines, see “Public Schools and Religious Communities: A First Amendment Guide” published by the American Jewish Congress, Christian Legal Society, and First Amendment Center and co-signed by 12 additional educational and religious organizations (1999).

May public school facilities be used by outside community groups during nonschool hours?

Generally, yes. Although schools are not required to open their facilities to any community group, when they do, all groups — including those with a religious viewpoint — must be treated the same (see Good News Club v. Milford Central School Dist., 2001). In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that schools may not discriminate on the basis of religious viewpoint when making their facilities available to community groups during nonschool hours (see Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School Dist., 1993).

Schools may, of course, impose reasonable, content-neutral restrictions on the use of their facilities. For example, schools may decide when meetings may be held, how long they may last, whether they may continue during weeks or months when school is not in session, what maintenance fee must be paid, and what insurance might be required.

Some content-based restrictions may also be allowed. For example, schools may probably exclude for-profit, commercial businesses even though community nonprofits are allowed to use school facilities after hours. They may also limit the use of the facilities to such things as “educational purposes,” but such distinctions may prove difficult to administer, as many groups may claim to meet the stipulated purpose.

Schools should be aware that the imposition of content-based restrictions could raise difficult constitutional questions. For example, the Supreme Court has held in Good News v. Milford that in the case of the Good News Club, a content-based restriction excluding religious worship and instruction amounted to impermissible viewpoint discrimination. School districts should be especially mindful to consult with legal counsel if they decide to draft content-based restrictions.

Do religious institutions have a free-exercise right to tax exemptions?

The Supreme Court has been clear that the simple act of taxation is not in and of itself a violation of either the First Amendment’s free-exercise or establishment clauses. This does not mean, however, that it is impossible for a tax to violate either or both of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. If a tax were targeted in discriminatory ways or became so oppressive that it substantially constrained a religious group’s ability to function, then it could possibly violate the free-exercise clause. Likewise, the administrative details of enforcing a taxation scheme could become so intricate and require so much interaction between the state and a religious organization that a court would find sufficient entanglement to violate the establishment clause, as interpreted through the Lemon test.

Can the government ever interfere with someone’s religious practices?

Under current constitutional law, the government can impose restrictions on a religious belief or practice as long as the law in question applies to everyone and does not target a specific religion or religious practice.

May a teacher wear religious garb to school provided the teacher does not proselytize to the students?

Probably not. It is likely that many courts would allow a school to prohibit teachers’ religious garb in order to maintain religious neutrality. The courts may view such garb as creating a potential establishment-clause problem, particularly at the elementary school level.

Pennsylvania and Oregon have laws that prohibit teachers from wearing religious clothing to schools. Both laws have been upheld in court challenges brought under the First Amendment and Title VII, the major anti-discrimination employment law. The courts reasoned that the statutes furthered the states’ goal of ensuring neutrality with respect to religion in the schools.

In the Pennsylvania case, U.S. v. Board of Education, the 3rd Circuit rejected the Title VII religious-discrimination claim of a Muslim teacher who was prevented from wearing her religious clothing to school. The school acted pursuant to a state law, called the “Garb Statute,” which provided: “[N]o teacher in any public school shall wear in said school or while engaged in the performance of his duty as such teacher any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect or denomination.”

The teacher and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission contended that the school should have allowed the teacher to wear her head scarf and long, loose dress as a “reasonable accommodation” of her religious faith. The appeals court disagreed, determining that “the preservation of religious neutrality is a compelling state interest.”

In its 1986 decision Cooper v. Eugene School District, the Oregon Supreme Court rejected the free-exercise challenge of a Sikh teacher suspended for wearing religious clothing — a white turban and white clothes — to her special education classes. The Oregon high court upheld the state law, which provided: “No teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher.” The court wrote that “the aim of maintaining the religious neutrality of the public schools furthers a constitutional obligation beyond an ordinary policy preference of the legislature.”

The First Amendment Center’s A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools provides that “teachers are permitted to wear non-obtrusive jewelry, such as a cross or Star of David. But teachers should not wear clothing with a proselytizing message (e.g. a ‘Jesus Saves’ T-shirt).”

Is it legal for students to pray in public schools?

Yes. Contrary to popular myth, the Supreme Court has never outlawed “prayer in schools.” Students are free to pray alone or in groups, as long as such prayers are not disruptive and do not infringe upon the rights of others. But this right “to engage in voluntary prayer does not include the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate.” (This is the language supported by a broad range of civil liberties and religious groups in a joint statement of current law.)

What the Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down are state-sponsored or state-organized prayers in public schools.

The Supreme Court has made clear that prayers organized or sponsored by a public school — even when delivered by a student — violate the First Amendment, whether in a classroom, over the public address system, at a graduation exercise, or even at a high school football game. (Engel v. Vitale, 1962; School Dist. of Abington Township v. Schempp, 1963; Lee v. Weisman, 1992; Santa Fe Independent School. Dist. v. Doe, 2000)

What is a ‘noncurriculum-related student group’ under the Equal Access Act?

In the 1990 Supreme Court case of Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens, the Court interpreted a “noncurriculum related student group” to mean “any student group [or club] that does not directly relate to the body of courses offered by the school.”

According to the Court, a student group directly relates to a school’s curriculum only if (1) the subject matter of the group is actually taught, or will soon be taught, in a regularly offered course; (2) the subject matter of the group concerns the body of courses as a whole; or (3) participation in the group is required for a particular course or results in academic credit.

As examples, the Court identified three groups that were noncurriculum-related at the Westside schools: (1) a scuba club, (2) a chess club, and (3) a service club. The Court found these groups to be noncurriculum-related because they did not meet the criteria set forth above. Conversely, the French club was found to be curriculum-related since the school regularly offered French classes.

Subject to review by the courts, local school authorities must determine whether a student group is curriculum related or not. Schools may not, however, substitute their own definition of “noncurriculum related” for the definition provided by the Court.

If the school violates the EAA, an aggrieved person may bring suit in U.S. district court to compel the school to observe the law. Although violations of equal access will not result in the loss of federal funds, the school could be liable for damages and the attorney’s fees of a student group that successfully challenges a denial to meet under the act.

May students share their religious faith in public schools?

Yes. Students are free to share their faith with their peers, as long as the activity is not disruptive and does not infringe upon the rights of others.

School officials possess substantial discretion to impose rules of order and other pedagogical restrictions on student activities. But they may not structure or administer such rules to discriminate against religious activity or speech.

This means that students have the same right to engage in individual or group prayer and religious discussion during the school day as they do to engage in other comparable activities. For example, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray before tests. Generally, students may share their faith or pray in a nondisruptive manner when not engaged in school activities or instruction, subject to the rules that normally pertain in the applicable setting. Specifically, students in informal settings, such as cafeterias and hallways, may pray and discuss their religious views with each other, subject to the same rules of order as applied to other student activities and speech. Students may also speak to and attempt to persuade their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics. School officials, however, should intercede if a student’s speech begins to constitute harassment of a student or group of students.

Students may also participate in before- or after-school events with religious content, such as “See You at the Pole” gatherings, on the same terms as they may participate in other noncurriculum activities on school premises. School officials may neither discourage nor encourage participation in such an event. Keep in mind, however, that the right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion free from discrimination does not necessarily include the right to preach to a “captive audience,” like an assembly, or to compel other students to participate. To that end, teachers and school administrators should work to ensure that no student is in any way coerced — either psychologically or physically — to participate in a religious activity (see Lee v. Weisman, 1992).


May students express their beliefs about religion in classroom assignments or at school-sponsored events?

Yes, within limits. Generally, if it is relevant to the subject under consideration and meets the requirements of the assignment, students should be allowed to express their religious or nonreligious views during a class discussion, as part of a written assignment, or as part of an art activity.

This does not mean, however, that students have the right to compel a captive audience to participate in prayer or listen to a proselytizing sermon. School officials should allow students to express their views about religion, but should draw the line when students wish to invite others to participate in religious practices or want to give a speech that is primarily proselytizing. There is no bright legal line that can be drawn between permissible and impermissible student religious expression in a classroom assignment or at a school-sponsored event. In recent lower court decisions, judges have deferred to the judgment of educators to determine where to draw the line. (C.H. v. Olivia, 2nd Cir. 2000)

Is it constitutional for a public school to require a ‘moment of silence’?

Yes, if, and only if, the moment of silence is genuinely neutral. A neutral moment of silence that does not encourage prayer over any other quiet, contemplative activity will not be struck down, even though some students may choose to use the time for prayer. (See Bown v. Gwinnett County School Dist., 11th Cir. 1997)

If a moment of silence is used to promote prayer, it will be struck down by the courts. In Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) the Supreme Court struck down an Alabama “moment of silence” law because it was enacted for the express purpose of promoting prayer in public schools. At the same time, however, the Court indicated that a moment of silence would be constitutional if it is genuinely neutral. Many states and local school districts currently have moment-of-silence policies in place.

May a school board limit school activities on certain nights to accommodate a particular religious group?

No, not unless the school has a legitimate civil or secular purpose for limiting activities; it may not curtain programs only to accommodate a particular religious group. Though the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled directly on this issue, causing some ambiguity, the Court has heard many cases concerning the First Amendment’s establishment clause. From one of those cases came the Lemon test used by the courts to determine if a law runs contrary to the establishment clause. The secular-purpose standard mentioned above is one part of this test, which the Court developed in 1971 in deciding the case Lemon v. Kurtzman. The Lemon test has three parts; first, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; third, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. So, for example, if school officials could show that there would be little or no participation in a school activity on a given night due to some religious observance or activity, causing the school to waste school funds, they would probably withstand a constitutional challenge.


What about the power of schools to control student speech in the classroom?

Schools have great latitude to control the speech that occurs in a classroom and, in that setting, can probably prohibit the distribution of student publications altogether. Similarly, schools may impose any reasonable constraint on student speech in a school-sponsored publication such as the school newspaper.

May the government constitutionally place conditions on religious tax exemptions?

Yes. The Internal Revenue Service requires that 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations (a category that includes tax-exempt religious organizations) refrain from partisan politicking if they are to receive tax-exempt status. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held in Branch Ministries v. Rossotti (2000) that a religious institution had no affirmative right to a tax exemption and that the IRS was justified in conditioning a church’s tax-exempt status on its willingness to abstain from political advocacy. In 1992, the church took out a newspaper ad to ask Christians to vote against then-governor Bill Clinton because of his political stances, also including a request for donations to the ministry. The court determined that this sort of political advocacy was not central to the church’s religious practice, and therefore restraining from such speech was not a burden on its free-exercise rights.

The government may also condition tax exemptions on compliance with government policies. In the Supreme Court’s 1983 decision in Bob Jones University v. United States, the university’s tax-exempt status was revoked because the school enforced racially discriminatory policies. Questions remain as to whether legislatures or administrative agencies can condition exemptions on an organization’s promise not to discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation, aspects of which might legitimately relate to the organization’s religious beliefs.

Are religious organizations allowed to lobby for or against legislation?

They may engage in lobbying activities as long as the lobbying does not form a “substantial part” of their activities. According to the IRS, lobbying is “attempting to influence legislation” and “an organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.” The IRS says it “considers a variety of factors, including the time devoted (by both compensated and volunteer workers) and the expenditures devoted by the organization to the activity, when determining whether the lobbying activity is substantial.” According to the courts, devoting 5% of an organization’s time and effort to political activity is not considered substantial within the meaning of the IRS Code. See Seasongood v. Commissioner.

May a non-custodial parent be told not to expose a child to a religion other than the religion practiced by the custodial parent?

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, stated that “in general it is appropriate for the federal courts to leave delicate issues of domestic relations to the state courts.” Consequently, the question at hand has not been dealt with by the Supreme Court or the federal district courts.

The state courts that have handled this issue, for the most part, have not restricted the non-custodial parents from exposing their children to a different religion. The courts will generally steer clear of this issue “except where there is a clear and affirmative showing that the conflicting religious beliefs affect the general welfare of the child” (Munoz v. Munoz, 489 P.2d 1133, 1135 (WA., 1971)).

The ambiguous language from this Washington state case, one of the first to address this issue, has caused other states to interpret what “affects the general welfare of the child” in many different ways. When determining custody, the courts look at and weigh many different factors to determine what is in the child’s best interest. Examples of these factors can include the emotional ties between the parent and the child, the physical and mental health of the parents and/or the ability of the parents to provide for the child’s material needs. Religion may be one of the factors considered, but is generally only considered if it has, or will have, a clear and substantial bearing on the welfare of the child. As various courts have stated, a showing of substantial harm must be demonstrated before a non-custodial parent’s right to expose the child to his or her religion will be restricted.

State courts have struggled to define what constitutes substantial harm. Very few have found demonstrated substantial harm in the cases they have heard. What courts have said, as in Khalsa v. Khalsa, 107 N.M. 31, 36 (Ct. App. 1988), is that “a custodial parent’s general testimony that the child is upset or confused because of the non-custodial parent’s religious practice is insufficient to demonstrate harm [See Felton v. Felton, 383 Mass. 232 (1981); Munoz v. Munoz]. Further, general testimony that the child is upset because the parents practice conflicting religious beliefs is likewise insufficient.” Thus a very strong showing of harm must be presented.

An example of this is the case of LeDoux v. LeDoux, 234 Neb. 479 (Neb. 1990) in which the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld a trial court’s decree ordering the father, a Jehovah’s Witness, “to refrain from exposing or permitting any other person to expose his minor children to any religious practices or teachings inconsistent with the Catholic religion.” When they married and had their children, the LeDouxs were both Catholics. At the time of the divorce Edward Ledoux was a Jehovah’s Witness and insisted that the children be involved in his religious activities. The mother, Diane LeDoux, presented testimony from a clinical psychologist who testified that one of the children was under serious stress and was having a maladjustment problem. The psychologist indicated “that conflicts in the Catholic and Jehovah’s Witnesses religions were an obvious contributing factor to the stress felt” by the child.

After weighing all the evidence, “the trial court concluded that exposing the minor children to more than one religious practice would have a deleterious effect upon the minor children,” and the Nebraska Supreme Court agreed. (Other examples: Funk v. Ossman, 150 Ariz. 578 (Ct. App. 1986), Kendall v. Kendall, 426 Mass. 238 (1997).)

Because a parent’s constitutional right to practice his or her religion freely could potentially be restricted, a showing of substantial harm to the minor children is required. Substantial harm is a high standard and “requires a clear showing that a parent’s religious practices have been or are likely to be harmful to the child” (Kirchner v. Caughey, 326 Md. 567, 576 (Ct. App. 1992)).

May my state pass a voucher program in which some vouchers are used at religious schools?

In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that, under certain conditions, communities may create a voucher program for use at a variety of schools without violating the U.S. Constitution, even if some of the vouchers are redeemed at religious schools.

Citing precedent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s plurality opinion looked first at the purpose of a voucher program: It must exist for a valid secular purpose and not to promote any particular religion, he wrote.

The Court’s analysis then focused on whether a voucher program advances religion. The justices agreed that a neutral benefit program could be constitutional, even if religious institutions received some of the funds. Arguments occurred over the specifics of what constitutes a neutral program, and whether the funds could go directly to a religious group or if they must pass first through a private individual who would decide how to allocate the resources.

In both the plurality and concurring opinions, a majority of the Court focused primarily on whether or not a government benefit program was neutral on its face in matters of religion. In his plurality opinion in Zelman, Rehnquist said:

“[Previous cases] make clear that where a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause.”

What does all of this mean? The Court indicates that communities must consider several factors when creating a voucher program:

1. Is the proposed voucher program neutral with respect to religion? If the plan favors one religion over another, or non-religion over religion, then it will violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

2. Will the vouchers be made available to students based on religiously neutral criteria? That would mean deciding who gets a voucher must be based on such non-religious bases as financial need or attendance at poorly performing school, etc. Also, the schools that are allowed or not allowed to receive vouchers must similarly be appraised on the basis of secular criteria, such as academic performance and ability to adhere to safety codes.

3. The voucher must be awarded to an individual, not the religious institution, and the individual must, through private choice, make the decision as to where the voucher is to go. The government cannot influence this decision. This is necessary to demonstrate the government voucher is going to benefit the individual — as opposed to benefiting religion. This last element was by far the most contentious issue for the justices in the Zelman decision.

While all of the above material focuses on whether a voucher program is legal under the federal establishment clause, states must also look at their state constitutions. Most states have their own constitutional prohibitions against providing public funds to religious entities. These restrictions are often more restrictive than the U.S. Constitution.

This issue has come to the forefront in Colorado, where, in May 2003, a group of taxpayers sued the state over a newly implemented voucher program. Many of the arguments are based on Colorado’s constitutional prohibitions against allowing public money to go to religious entities.

Other issues are also involved, many revolving around policy questions and political realities.

Does the Supreme Court’s holding in Marsh mean that any plan for providing a legislature with a chaplain paid with public funds will be constitutional?

Not necessarily. The Court’s holding was based on the fact that Nebraska’s practice did not seem likely to lead to an “establishment of religion.” Given a different set of facts, a majority of the justices might well have discerned such an unconstitutional establishment. For instance, courts are stricter in their application of the establishment clause when it comes to public schools, or other arenas where the government has the opportunity to influence a captive audience of impressionable youngsters. What seems clear from Marsh is that the Court is willing to defer to traditional practices that bear a religious element as long as they do not appear to coerce the unwilling or the highly impressionable into some form of religious participation or belief. The Marsh reliance on tradition and a failure to prove any establishing tendency could make a huge difference if the Supreme Court decides to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of the national motto (“In God We Trust”), or the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance.

May students distribute religious literature in a public school?

Court decisions on the issue generally fall into two categories.

Most courts hold that although schools may place some restrictions on distribution of religious materials by students, they may not ban them altogether. The courts base their decisions on the landmark case of Tinker v. Des Moines School District, which upheld the right of students to wear black armbands protesting the Vietnam War, even in a public school. Included in this right of free speech is not only the right to speak for oneself but also to distribute the writings (i.e., speech) of others. Thus, courts have generally upheld the rights of students to distribute non-school religious literature subject to the school’s right to suppress such materials if they create substantial disruption, harm the rights of other students or infringe upon other compelling interests of the school. Again, the Mergens decision makes clear that the fear of a First Amendment violation is not sufficient justification to suppress a student distribution of material that happens to be religious. Some states, such as California, have incorporated the majority view into their own state education codes.

A minority of decisions hold that schools can prohibit the distribution of any material that is not sponsored by the school. Of course, the ban must be applied even-handedly to all students. A school could not, for example, allow the distribution of political literature while barring religious publications. This is particularly evident in light of the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens, upholding the federal Equal Access Act. Under this minority view, however, a blanket prohibition on all student distributions would be permissible.

Does the First Amendment apply to public schools?

Yes. The First Amendment applies to all levels of government, including public schools. Although the courts have permitted school officials to limit the rights of students under some circumstances, the courts have also recognized that students — like all citizens — are guaranteed the rights protected by the First Amendment.

Earlier in our history, however, the First Amendment did not apply to the states — and thus not to public schools. When adopted in 1791, the First Amendment applied only to Congress and the federal government (“Congress shall make no law …”). This meant that when public schools were founded in the mid-19th century, students could not make First Amendment claims against the actions of school officials.

The restrictions on student speech lasted into the 20th century. In 1908, for example, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that school officials could suspend two students for writing a poem ridiculing their teachers that was published in a local newspaper. The Wisconsin court reasoned, “such power is essential to the preservation of order, decency, decorum, and good government in the public schools.” And in 1915, the California Court of Appeals ruled that school officials could suspend a student for criticizing and “slamming” school officials in a student assembly speech.

In fact, despite the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, which provides that “no state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” it was not until 1925, by way of the Supreme Court case of Gitlow v. New York, that the Supreme Court held that the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment is one of the “liberties” incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

In subsequent cases, the Court has applied all of the freedoms of the First Amendment to the states — and thus to public schools — through the 14th Amendment. But not until 1943, in the flag-salute case of West Virginia v. Barnette, did the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly extend First Amendment protection to students attending public schools.

The Barnette case began when several students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to salute the flag for religious reasons. School officials punished the students and their parents. The students then sued, claiming a violation of their First Amendment rights.

At the time that the students sued, Supreme Court precedent painted a bleak picture for their chances. Just a few years earlier, the Court had ruled in favor of a similar compulsory flag-salute law in Minersville School District v. Gobitis. As the Court stated in that ruling, “national unity is the basis of national security.”

However, the high court reversed itself in Barnette, holding that the free-speech and free exercise of religion provisions of the First Amendment guarantee the right of students to be excused from the flag salute on grounds of conscience.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Jackson said that the Supreme Court must ensure “scrupulous protection of constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” The Court then warned of the dangers of coercion by government in oft-cited, eloquent language:

“If there is any fixed star in our Constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”


The First Amendment says that the government may not ‘establish’ religion. What does that mean in a public school?

The meaning of the establishment clause, often referred to as the “separation of church and state,” has been much debated throughout our history. Does it require, as described in Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, a high “wall of separation”? Or may government support religion as long as no one religion is favored over others? How can school officials determine when they are violating the establishment clause?

In the last several decades, the Supreme Court has crafted several tests to determine when state action becomes “establishment” of religion. No one test is currently favored by a majority of the Court. Nevertheless, no matter what test is used, it is fair to say that the Court has been stricter about applying the establishment clause in public schools than in other government settings. For example, the Court has upheld legislative prayer (Marsh v. Chambers, 1983), but struck down teacher-led prayer in public schools (Engel v. Vitale, 1962). The Court applies the establishment clause more rigorously in public schools, mostly for two reasons: (1) students are impressionable young people, and (2) they are a “captive audience” required by the state to attend school.

When applying the establishment clause to public schools, the Court often emphasizes the importance of “neutrality” by school officials toward religion. This means that public schools may neither inculcate nor inhibit religion. They also may not prefer one religion over another — or religion over nonreligion.

If school officials are supposed to be ‘neutral’ toward religion under the establishment clause, does that mean they should keep religion out of public schools?

No. By “neutrality” the Supreme Court does not mean hostility to religion. Nor does it mean ignoring religion. Neutrality means protecting the religious-liberty rights of all students while simultaneously rejecting school endorsement or promotion of religion.

In 1995, 24 major religious and educational organizations defined religious liberty in public schools this way:

Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.


Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious-liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion as an important part of a complete education.

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.


How can school officials tell when a planned school action or activity might violate the establishment clause?

Here are some questions that teachers and administrators should ask themselves when planning activities that may involve religious content (e.g., a holiday assembly in December):

  • Do I have a distinct educational or civic purpose in mind? If so, what is it? (It may not be the purpose of the public school to promote or denigrate religion.)
  • Have I done what I can to ensure that this activity is not designed in any way to either promote or inhibit religion?
  • Does this activity serve the educational mission of the school or the academic goals of the course?
  • Have I done what I can to ensure that no student or parent may be made to feel like an outsider, and not a full member of the community, by this activity?
  • If I am teaching about religion, am I balanced, accurate, and academic in my approach?

What does ‘free exercise’ of religion mean under the First Amendment?

The free-exercise clause of the First Amendment states that the government “shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” Although the text sounds absolute, “no law” does not always mean “no law.” The Supreme Court has had to place some limits on the freedom to practice religion. To take an easy example cited by the Court in one of its landmark “free-exercise” cases (Reynolds v. U.S., 1878), the First Amendment would not protect the practice of human sacrifice even if some religion required it. In other words, while the freedom to believe is absolute, the freedom to act on those beliefs is not.

But where may government draw the line on the practice of religion? The courts have struggled with the answer to that question for much of our history. Over time, the Supreme Court developed a test to help judges determine the limits of free exercise. First fully articulated in the 1963 case of Sherbert v. Verner, this test is sometimes referred to as the Sherbert or “compelling interest” test. The test has four parts: two that apply to any person who claims that his freedom of religion has been violated, and two that apply to the government agency accused of violating those rights.

For the individual, the court must determine

  • whether the person has a claim involving a sincere religious belief, and
  • whether the government action places a substantial burden on the person’s ability to act on that belief.

If these two elements are established, then the government must prove

  • that it is acting in furtherance of a “compelling state interest,” and
  • that it has pursued that interest in the manner least restrictive, or least burdensome, to religion.

The Supreme Court, however, curtailed the application of the Sherbert test in the 1990 case of Employment Division v. Smith. In that case, the Court held that a burden on free exercise no longer had to be justified by a compelling state interest if the burden was an unintended result of laws that are generally applicable.

After Smith, only laws (or government actions) that (1) were intended to prohibit the free exercise of religion, or (2) violated other constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, were subject to the compelling-interest test. For example, a state could not pass a law stating that Native Americans are prohibited from using peyote, but it could accomplish the same result by prohibiting the use of peyote by everyone.

In the wake of Smith, many religious and civil liberties groups have worked to restore the Sherbert test — or compelling-interest test — through legislation. These efforts have been successful in some states. In other states, the courts have ruled that the compelling-interest test is applicable to religious claims by virtue of the state’s own constitution. In many states, however, the level of protection for free-exercise claims is uncertain.


How should school officials determine when they must accommodate a religious-liberty claim under the free-exercise clause?

The application of the “compelling interest” test, established by the Supreme Court in 1963 in Sherbert v. Verner, was sharply curtailed by the 1990 Supreme Court decision Employment Division v. Smith. But some states — such as Florida, Texas and Connecticut — have passed laws requiring the use of a compelling-interest test in free-exercise cases. Moreover, since most cases involving public schools involve more than one constitutional right (e.g., the religion claim can be linked with a parental right or free-speech claim), some might argue that the compelling-interest test must be used even under Smith.

Regardless of how this is eventually settled in the courts, public schools fulfill the spirit of the First Amendment when they use the Sherbert test to accommodate the religious claims of students and parents where feasible.

May a religious group that receives funds to administer a homeless shelter discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion or adherence to religious doctrines?

Yes. According to the White House, faith-based organizations that receive federal funds may discriminate in employment based on religion.

Charitable-choice provisions found in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWOR) contain no prohibitions against religious discrimination in employment by religious service providers. Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964, otherwise known as Title VII, prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, it contains an exception for religious institutions. Writing for the Center for Public Justice, Carl Esbeck of the Christian Legal Society explained that such exemptions are necessary if faith-based organizations (FBOs) are to successfully participate in social service programs. According to Esbeck, “[p]rotecting the autonomy of FBOs was done to enable them to succeed at what they do so well, namely help the poor and needy, and to get FBOs to participate in government programs, something FBOs are far less likely to do if they face compromising regulation.”

Yet disagreement continues over both the constitutionality of such exemptions and the civic wisdom of such policies. This is easily seen in recent legislative battles between House and Senate bills over the CARE legislation, a bill broadening access to government funding of FBOs. The House passed the original version, supported by the White House, with an exemption allowing FBOs to discriminate in employment based on religion. The Senate version contained no such exemptions, or even any expansion of access, but instead provided greater tax breaks for charitable donations. Several lawsuits have also been filed over charitable choice and the employment-discrimination exemptions.

While most agree that FBOs currently may discriminate on the basis of religion, the White House Web site provides the following caveat:

“[C]ertain Federal laws and regulations, as well as State and local laws, may place conditions on the receipt of government funds. For example, some employment laws may prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion. Or a State or local law may prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or require certain organizations to provide benefits to employees’ unmarried domestic partners. Some of these laws may exempt religious organizations, while others may not. Organizations with further questions about this issue may wish to consult a lawyer to find out about the specific requirements that apply to your organization and any rights you may have under the Constitution or Federal laws.”

Can federally funded senior centers include religious activities as part of their programs or services?

Not as part of their federally funded programs. According to Title 45, Part 87, Section 2, Subsection C of the Code of Federal Regulations, “organizations that receive direct financial assistance from the [federal government] may not engage in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization, as part of the programs or services funded with direct financial assistance from the [government].”


How, if at all, can federally funded senior centers provide religious activities to those who want to participate?

Title 45, Part 87, Section 2, Subsection C of the Code of Federal Regulations states that “if an organization conducts such activities, the activities must be offered separately, in time or location, from the programs or services funded with direct financial assistance from the [government], and participation must be voluntary for beneficiaries of the programs or services funded with such assistance.”

Can federally funded senior centers use religious beliefs to discriminate in deciding to whom to provide services?

No. Title 45, Part 87, Section 2, Subsection E of the Code of Federal Regulations says that “an organization that participates in programs funded by direct financial assistance from the [government] shall not, in providing services, discriminate against a program beneficiary or prospective program beneficiary on the basis of religion or religious belief.”

May public schools offer a history course that focuses on the Bible?

An elective history course that focuses on the Bible is a difficult undertaking for public schools because of the complex scholarly and religious debates about the historicity of the Bible. Such a course would need to include non-biblical sources from a variety of scholarly perspectives. Students would study archeological findings and other historical evidence in order to understand the history and cultures of the ancient world. Teachers who may be assigned to teach a history course focused on the Bible need a great deal of preparation and sophistication.

Unless schools are prepared to design a course that meets the above requirements, they will face legal and educational challenges. In view of these requirements, most public schools that have offered a Bible elective have found it safer and more age-appropriate to use the Bible literature approach discussed earlier in this guide.

Schools must keep in mind that the Bible is seen by millions of Jews and Christians as scripture. For adherents of these faiths, the Bible makes sense of events in terms of God’s purposes and actions. This means that the Bible may not be treated as a history textbook by public school teachers but must be studied by examining a variety of perspectives — religious and non-religious — on the meaning and significance of the biblical account.

As we have already noted, sorting out what is historical in the Bible is complicated and potentially controversial. Teachers who teach a history course focused on the Bible need to be sensitive to the differences between conventional secular history and the varieties of sacred history. Students must learn something about the contending ways of assessing the historicity of the Bible. They cannot be uncritically taught to accept the Bible as literally true, as history. Nor should they be uncritically taught to accept as historical only what secular historians find verifiable in the Bible.

Sometimes, in an attempt to make study about the Bible more “acceptable” in public schools, educators are willing to jettison accounts of miraculous events. But this too is problematic, for it radically distorts the meaning of the Bible. For those who accept the Bible as scripture, God is at work in history, and there is a religious meaning in the patterns of history. A Bible elective in a public school may examine all parts of the Bible, as long as the teacher understands how to teach about the religious content of the Bible from a variety of perspectives.

What about the study of other religious traditions?

Given the importance and influence of religion, public schools should include study about religion in some depth on the secondary level. As already suggested, such study may include study about the Bible, where appropriate, in history and literature courses as well as in elective courses that deal with the Bible.

However, a course that includes study about the Bible and its influence will not educate students about religion generally. Just as there is more to history than American history, so there is more to religion than the Bible, Judaism and Christianity.

Public schools should also include study about other religious faiths in the core curriculum and offer electives in world religions. Because religion plays a significant role in history and society, study about religion is essential to understanding both the nation and the world. Moreover, knowledge of the roles of religion in the past and present promotes crosscultural understanding in our increasingly diverse society.

Some school districts require that high schools offering a Bible elective also offer an elective in world religions. There is considerable merit in this approach. This gives students an opportunity to learn about a variety of religions and conveys to students from faiths other than the biblical traditions that their religions are also worthy of study. It is important for public schools to convey the message that the curriculum is designed to offer a good education, and not to prefer any religious faith or group.

How should study about the Bible be handled in elementary education?

The study of family, community, various cultures, the nation and other themes and topics important in elementary education may involve some discussion of religion. Elementary students are introduced to the basic ideas and practices of the world’s major religions in a number of textbooks and curriculums used in public schools. These discussions of religion focus on the generally agreed-upon meanings of religious faiths — the core beliefs and symbols, as well as important figures and events. Such discussions may include an introduction to biblical literature as students learn something about the various biblical faiths.

This early exposure to study about religion builds a foundation for later, more complex discussions in secondary school literature and history courses. Such teaching is introductory in nature; elementary education is not the place for in-depth treatment of religion. Stories drawn from various religious faiths may be included among the wide variety of stories read by students. But the material selected must always be presented in the context of learning about religion.

One court has permitted elective Bible courses at the elementary level (in Wiley v. Franklin, 468 F. Supp. 133 (E.D. Tenn. 1979)). But if such instruction is undertaken, it must be done academically and objectively by a qualified teacher. Children would need to understand that they are studying about what the people of a particular religious tradition believe and practice. Devotional books intended for faith formation or religious education may not be used in a public school classroom.

As in secondary schools, a balanced and fair curriculum in the elementary grades would not limit study about religion to Judaism and Christianity, but would include a variety of the world’s major religious faiths.


Do schools that permit the distribution of student religious literature give up all control over how it is done?

No. Just because schools may not prohibit the distribution of all student materials does not mean that schools have no control over what may be distributed on school premises. On the contrary, courts have repeatedly held that schools may place reasonable “time, place and manner” restrictions on all student materials distributed on campus. Thus, schools may specify when the distribution can occur (e.g., lunch hour or before or after classes begin), where it can occur (e.g., outside the school office) and how it can occur (e.g., from fixed locations as opposed to roving distribution). One recent decision upheld a policy confining the distribution of student literature to a table placed in a location designated by the principal and to the sidewalks adjacent to school property. Of course, any such restriction must be reasonable.

It is also likely that schools may insist on screening all student materials prior to distribution to ensure their appropriateness for a public school. Any such screening policy should provide for a speedy decision, a statement of reasons for rejecting the literature and a prompt appeals process. Because the speech rights of students are not coextensive with those of adults, schools may prohibit the distribution of some types of student literature altogether. Included in this category would be:

  • Materials that would be likely to cause substantial disruption of the operation of the school. Literature that uses fighting words or other inflammatory language about students or groups of students would be an example of this type of material. Student speech may not be prohibited simply because it is considered offensive by some (see Saxe v. State College Area School Dist., 3rd Cir. 2001).
  • Material that violates the rights of others. Included in this category would be literature that is libelous, invades the privacy of others or infringes on a copyright.
  • Materials that are obscene, lewd or sexually explicit.
  • Commercial materials that advertise products unsuitable for minors.
  • Materials that students would reasonably believe to be sponsored or endorsed by the school. One recent example of this category of speech was a religious newspaper that was formatted to look like the school newspaper.

Though schools have considerable latitude in prohibiting the distribution of materials that conflict with their educational mission, schools generally may not ban materials solely on the basis of content. Similarly, schools should not allow a heckler’s veto by prohibiting the distribution of only those materials that are unpopular or controversial. If Christian students are allowed to distribute their newsletters, then Buddhists, Muslims and even Wiccans must be given the same privilege.

How should religious holidays be treated in the classroom?

Teachers must be alert to the distinction between teaching about religious holidays, which is permissible, and celebrating religious holidays, which is not. Recognition of and information about holidays may focus on how and when they are celebrated, their origins, histories and generally agreed-upon meanings. If the approach is objective and sensitive, neither promoting nor inhibiting religion, this study can foster understanding and mutual respect for differences in belief. Teachers may not, however, use the study of religious holidays as an opportunity to proselytize or otherwise inject their personal religious beliefs into the discussion.

The use of religious symbols is permissible as a teaching aid or resource, provided they are used only as examples of cultural or religious heritage. Religious symbols may be displayed only on a temporary basis as part of the academic lesson being studied. Students may choose to create artwork with religious symbols, but teachers should not assign or suggest such creations.

Guest speakers also can help teachers present the appropriate information, but only if they understand their role as informational, not devotional, in nature.

In addition, the use of art, drama, music, or literature with religious themes is permissible if it serves a sound educational goal in the curriculum. Such themes should be included on the basis of their academic or aesthetic value, and not as a vehicle for promoting religious beliefs. For example, sacred music may be sung or played as part of the academic study of music. School concerts that present a variety of selections may include religious music. Concerts should, however, avoid programs dominated by religious music, especially when these coincide with a particular religious holiday.


How should religious objections to holidays be handled?

Students from certain religious traditions may ask to be excused from classroom discussions or activities related to particular holidays. For example, holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day, which are considered by many people to be secular, are viewed by others as having religious overtones.

Excusal requests may be especially common in the elementary grades, where holidays are often marked by parties and similar nonacademic activities. Such requests should be routinely granted in the interest of creating good policy and upholding the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.

In addition, some parents and students may make requests for excusals from discussions of certain holidays, even when these holidays are treated from an academic perspective. If these requests are focused on a limited, specific discussion, administrators should grant such requests, in order to strike a balance between the student’s religious freedom and the school’s interest in providing a well-rounded education.

Administrators and teachers should understand, however, that a policy or practice of excusing students from a specific activity or discussion may not be used as a rationale for school sponsorship of religious celebration or worship for the remaining students.

May students be absent for religious holidays?

Schools should have policies concerning absences that take into account the religious needs and requirements of students. Students should be allowed a reasonable number of excused absences, without penalties, to observe religious holidays within their traditions. Students may be asked to complete makeup assignments or tests in conjunction with such absences.


Does the First Amendment require that ‘equal time’ be given to all faiths in the public school curriculum?

No. The grade level of the students and the academic requirements of the course should determine which religions to study and how much to discuss about religion.

In the elementary grades, the study of family, community, culture, history, literature, the nation, and other themes and topics should naturally involve some discussion of religion. Elementary students are introduced to the basic ideas and practices of the world’s major religions by focusing on the generally agreed-upon meanings of religious faiths — the core beliefs and symbols as well as important figures and events. Stories drawn from various faiths may be included among the wide variety of stories read by students, but the material selected must always be presented in the context of learning about religion. On the secondary level, the social studies, literature, and the arts offer opportunities for the inclusion of study about religions, their ideas, and practices. The academic needs of the course should determine which religions are studied and how much time is required to provide an adequate understanding of the concepts and practices under consideration.

In a U.S. history course, for example, some faith communities may be given more time than others simply because of their predominant influence on the development of the nation. In world history, a variety of faiths must be studied, based on the regions of the world, in order to understand the various civilizations and cultures that have shaped history and society.

Fair and balanced study about religion on the secondary level includes critical thinking about historical events involving religious traditions. Religious beliefs have been at the heart of some of the best and worst developments in human history. The full historical record, and various interpretations of it, should be available for analysis and discussion. Using primary sources whenever possible allows students to work directly with the historical record.

Of course, fairness and balance in U.S. or world history and literature is difficult to achieve, given the brief treatment of religious ideas and events in most textbooks and the limited time available in the course syllabus. Teachers will need scholarly supplemental resources that enable them to cover the required material within the allotted time, while enriching the discussion with study of religion. In fact, some schools now offer electives in religious studies to provide additional opportunities for students to study about the major faith communities in greater depth.

Overall, the curriculum should include all major voices, and many minor ones, in an effort to provide the best possible education.

May religious scriptures be used in a public school classroom?

Study of history or literature would be incomplete without exposure to the scriptures of the world’s major religious traditions. Some knowledge of biblical literature, for example, is necessary to comprehend much in the history, law, art and literature of Western civilization, just as exposure to the Quran is important for understanding Islamic civilization. In this sense, the classical religious texts are part of our study of history and culture.

At the same time, students need to recognize that, while scriptures tell us much about the history and cultures of humankind, they are considered sacred accounts by adherents to their respective traditions. Religious documents give students of history the opportunity to examine directly how religious traditions understand divine revelation and human values.

In a history class, selections from these accounts should always be treated with respect and used only in the appropriate historical and cultural context. Alert students to the fact that there are a variety of interpretations of scripture within each religious tradition.

May teachers use role-playing or simulations to teach about religion?

Recreating religious practices or ceremonies through role-playing activities should not take place in a public school classroom for three reasons:

1. Such reenactments run the risk of blurring the distinction between teaching about religion (which is constitutional) and school-sponsored practice of religion (which is unconstitutional).

2. Role-playing religious practices or rituals may violate the religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, of the students in the classroom. Even if the students are all volunteers, many parents don’t want their children participating in a religious activity of a faith not their own. The fact that the exercise is “acting” doesn’t prevent potential problems.

3. Simulations or role-playing, no matter how carefully planned or well-intentioned, risk trivializing, caricaturing or oversimplifying the religious tradition that is being studied. Teachers should use audiovisual resources and primary sources to introduce students to the ceremonies and rituals of the world’s religions.

Is it legal to invite guest speakers to help teach about religion?

Yes, if the school district policy allows guest speakers in the classroom.

If a guest speaker is invited, care should be taken to find someone with the academic background necessary for an objective and scholarly discussion of the historical period and the religion under consideration. Faculty from local colleges and universities often make excellent guest speakers, or they can recommend others who might be appropriate for working with students in a public school setting. Religious leaders in the community may also be a resource. Remember, however, that they have commitments to their own faith. Above all else, be certain that any guest speaker understands the First Amendment guidelines for teaching about religion in public education and is clear about the academic nature of the assignment.

How should teachers respond if students ask them about their religious beliefs?

Some teachers prefer not to answer the question, believing that it is inappropriate for a teacher to inject personal beliefs into the classroom. Other teachers may choose to answer the question directly and succinctly in the interest of an open and honest classroom environment.

Before answering the question, however, teachers should consider the age of the students. Middle and high school students may be able to distinguish between a personal conviction and the official position of the school; very young children may not. In any case, the teacher may answer at most with a brief statement of personal belief — but may not turn the question into an opportunity to proselytize for or against religion. Teachers may neither reward nor punish students because they agree or disagree with the religious views of the teacher.

May religious leaders provide crisis counseling to students in public schools?

In times of sudden crisis (e.g., violent or accidental death of students or teachers), schools may call on a wide range of qualified counselors, including religious leaders, to assist school-employed counselors in helping children cope with the crisis at hand. Of course, religious leaders may not be the only grief counselors invited on campus during a crisis. Religious leaders may not otherwise be given routine access to students during the school day. Even when counseling to deal with a sudden crisis, religious leaders should remember that a public school is not a place for proselytizing or other overt religious activity.

To the extent that schools cooperate with adults who are important in a student’s life (parents or other relatives, guardians, foster parents, social workers or neighbors) to help the child deal with school work, behavioral problems, or other issues, schools may also cooperate with an adult acknowledged by a student as his or her religious leader. However, a school may not in any way compel or coerce a student to speak to representatives of religious institutions.

Do outside groups have the right to distribute material on campus?

Generally no. Adults from outside the school do not have an automatic right to distribute materials to students in a public school. May school officials allow them to do so? Although this area of the law is somewhat unclear, it is fair to say that schools should exercise great caution before giving an outside group access to students during the school day. Giving some groups access opens the door to others. Moreover, if a religious group is allowed to actively distribute religious literature to students on campus, that activity is likely to violate the establishment clause.

At least one lower court has upheld “passive” distribution of materials in a secondary school by religious and other community groups. Note that in this case the group left materials for students to browse through and take only if they wished. Also, a wide variety of community groups were given similar privileges, and the school posted a disclaimer explaining that the school did not endorse these materials. Under those conditions, this court allowed passive distribution, but only in the secondary-school setting (see Peck v. Upshur County, 4th Cir. 1998, although other federal courts have rejected this distinction).

Schools may announce community events or meetings of groups — including religious groups — that work with students. All of these groups should be treated in the same way. The school should make clear that it does not sponsor these community groups (see Child Evangelism Fellowship v. Stafford Township, 3rd Cir. 2004).

May public schools cooperate with mentoring programs run by religious institutions?

Public schools may cooperate with mentoring projects run by religious institutions provided that:

  • Other community organizations are given an equal opportunity and are subject to the same secular selection criteria to operate such programs in partnership with the schools.
  • Referrals are made without regard to a student’s religious beliefs or lack of them.
  • Participation in the program is not conditioned on mandatory participation, or refusal to participate, in religious programs operated by a religious institution.
  • At no time do school officials encourage or discourage student participation in the religious programs of religious institutions.

May religious institutions provide ‘safe shelter’ opportunities to students?

In order to provide for the safety of students traveling to and from schools, the school district may ask local institutions (e.g., businesses, firehouses, religious institutions) to serve as temporary shelters for students who seek to avoid danger or threatening situations. The school shall provide signs indicating that the place is a shelter available for students.

May schools use facilities owned by religious institutions?

Public schools may arrange to use the facilities of private landholders, including churches, temples, mosques or other religious institutions. Of course, all such facilities must meet applicable health and safety codes. But if the arrangement involves the use of sanctuaries, playgrounds, libraries or other facilities owned by religious groups, then the following First Amendment guidelines must be followed:

1. The schools must have a secular educational purpose for seeking to use the facilities, such as after-school recreation, extended day care, homework study hall, etc.

2. Where schools lease space from religious institutions for use as regular public school classrooms, the leased space is in effect a public school facility. Religious symbols or messages may not be displayed in the leased areas.

3. Cooperative programs using the facilities of religious institutions must not afford an actual opportunity for proselytizing by clergy, school employees, or adult volunteers of any school children during the school-affiliated program. (Of course, the law is not violated if a cooperative program’s use of a religious facility coincidentally results in a student gaining an interest in attending worship services there. But the law prohibits clergy from leading devotions as part of the school program.)

4. As stated above, religious symbols and messages may not be displayed in space leased from religious institutions for use as public-school classrooms. The rules are somewhat different for cooperative programs. A room bedecked with scriptural injunctions about repentance and salvation would not be appropriate for cooperative programs; a room with religious symbols or icons might well be.

5. School officials may neither select nor reject the use of a private religious facility based on the popularity or unpopularity of its religious teachings. Religion-neutral criteria should be employed, e.g., proximity to the schools in question; suitability of the facility for the intended use; health and safety; comparative expenses (if any); accessibility for parent pickup or busing.

6. The school’s arrangement for use of a private religious facility should not involve or necessitate an ongoing administrative entanglement between the school district and the religious institution, in which one party ends up exerting influence over the content, scheduling or staffing of the other’s activities.

May states choose only certain types of businesses to be closed on Sundays?

Yes. Where the state determines that a day of rest would be desirable in some kinds of businesses and not in others, they are permitted to restrict only those that they deem to be necessary. Likewise, the state may decide to forbid or limit the sale of certain items (such as alcohol) on any given day, so long as the decision is justified by some secular purpose instead of a religious one. In a 1999 decision, Harris County, Texas v. CarMax Auto Superstores, Inc., the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Texas law that forbade car dealerships from being open on consecutive Saturdays and Sundays. Effectively this forced the business owners to choose one day or the other as a day of rest for their employees, though it did not dictate any particular preference as to which one should be adopted. The court denied that the law unfairly discriminated against car dealers or established any sort of preference for religion as opposed to no religion.

May a student pray at graduation exercises or at other school-sponsored events?

This is one of the most confusing and controversial areas of the current school-prayer debate. While the courts have not clarified all of the issues, some are clearer than others.

For instance, inviting outside adults to lead prayers at graduation ceremonies is clearly unconstitutional. The Supreme Court resolved this issue in the 1992 case Lee v. Weisman, which began when prayers were delivered by clergy at a middle school’s commencement exercises in Providence, Rhode Island. The school designed the program, provided for the invocation, selected the clergy, and even supplied guidelines for the prayer.

Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the practice violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” The majority based its decision on the fact that (1) it is not the business of schools to sponsor or organize religious activities, and (2) students who might have objected to the prayer were subtly coerced to participate. This psychological coercion was not resolved by the fact that attendance at the graduation was “voluntary.” In the Court’s view, few students would want to miss the culminating event of their academic career.

A murkier issue is student-initiated, student-led prayer at school-sponsored events. On one side of the debate are those who believe that student religious speech at graduation ceremonies or other school-sponsored events violates the establishment clause. They are bolstered by the 2000 Supreme Court case Santa Fe v. Doe, which involved the traditional practice of student-led prayers over the public-address system before high school football games.

According to the district, students would vote each year on whether they would have prayers at home football games. If they decided to do so, they would then select a student to deliver the prayers. To ensure fairness, the school district said it required these prayers to be “non-sectarian [and] non-proselytizing.”

A 6-to-3 majority of the Supreme Court still found the Santa Fe policy to be unconstitutional. The majority opinion first pointed out that constitutional rights are not subject to a vote. To the contrary, the judges said the purpose of the Bill of Rights was to place some rights beyond the reach of political majorities. Thus, the Constitution protects a person’s right to freedom of speech, press, or religion even if no one else agrees with the ideas a person professes.

In addition, the Court found that having a student, as opposed to an adult, lead the prayer did not solve the constitutional dilemma. A football game is still a school-sponsored event, they held, and the school was still coercing the students, however subtly, to participate in a religious exercise.

Finally, the Court ruled that the requirement that the prayer be “non-sectarian” and “non-proselytizing” not only failed to solve the problems addressed in Lee v. Weisman, it may have aggravated them. In other words, while some might like the idea of an inclusive, nonsectarian “civil” religion, others might not. To some people, the idea of nonsectarian prayer is offensive, as though a prayer were being addressed “to whom it may concern.” Moreover, the Supreme Court made clear in Lee v. Weisman that even nondenominational prayers or generic religiosity may not be established by the government at graduation exercises.

Another thorny part of this issue is determining whether a particular prayer tends to proselytize. Such determinations entangle school officials in religious matters in unconstitutional ways. In fact, one Texas school district was sued for discriminating against those who wished to offer more-sectarian prayers at graduation exercises.

On the other side of this debate are those who contend that not allowing students to express themselves religiously at school events violates the students’ free exercise of religion and free speech.

Case law indicates, however, that this may be true only in instances involving strictly student speech, and not when a student is conveying a message controlled or endorsed by the school. As the 11th Circuit case of Adler v. Duval County (2001) suggests, it would seem possible for a school to provide a forum for student speech within a graduation ceremony when prayer or religious speech might occur.

For example, a school might allow the valedictorian or class president an opportunity to speak during the ceremony. If such a student chose to express a religious viewpoint, it seems unlikely it would be found unconstitutional unless the school had suggested or otherwise encouraged the religious speech. (See Doe v. Madison School Dist., 9th Cir. 1998.) In effect, this means that in order to distance itself from the student’s remarks, the school must create a limited open forum for student speech in the graduation program.

Again, there is a risk for school officials in this approach. By creating a limited open forum for student speech, the school may have to accept almost anything the student wishes to say. Although the school would not be required to allow speech that was profane, sexually explicit, defamatory, or disruptive, the speech could include political or religious views offensive to many, as well as speech critical of school officials.

If school officials feel a solemnizing event needs to occur at a graduation exercise, a neutral moment of silence might be the best option. This way, everyone could pray, meditate, or silently reflect on the previous year’s efforts in her own way.

May teachers or other school employees participate in student religious clubs?

No. The Equal Access Act states that “employees or agents of the school or government are present at religious meetings only in a nonparticipatory capacity.”

For insurance purposes, or because of state law or local school policy, teachers or other school employees are commonly required to be present during student meetings. But if the student club is religious in nature, school employees may be present as monitors only. Such custodial supervision does not constitute sponsorship or endorsement of the group by the school.

If the Supreme Court struck down Congress’ attempt to protect religious liberties in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, why wouldn’t it just do the same thing with RLUIPA?

Congress has different constitutional sources for its authority. If the Supreme Court denies it the power to create a law under one source, Congress may still be able to accomplish its goal using a different source. Congress justified its passage of RFRA under a section of the 14th Amendment that gives it the power to pass laws deemed necessary to protect the liberties ensured by that amendment, which would include the First Amendment’s guarantee of “free exercise of religion.” The Court held that under that section Congress was only permitted to develop laws that would enforce the standard of protection deemed necessary by the Court itself, as opposed to the stricter general standard embodied in RFRA.

RLUIPA’s justification was rooted in Congress’ power to regulate matters touching on interstate commerce. The Supreme Court has only rarely overturned congressional acts based on the interstate-commerce clause, so it is possible (though far from a certainty) that the Court would find a sufficient tie to interstate commerce to justify Congress in creating RLUIPA. It is important to note that even if the Court finds that Congress acted from the proper source of authority, the act might still be found to violate the establishment clause and therefore be unconstitutional.


Do cities have the right to restrict the number of churches?

Cities have the right to zone specific areas for religious purposes, but they do not have the right to restrict the number of churches or religious institutions within their boundaries. Under RLUIPA, religious institutions are given some protection against zoning laws. Though the act does not completely exempt churches from zoning laws, officials must have a compelling interest in restricting a church or other religious institution from being built in a specific area.

Some fear that allowing an overabundance of religious institutions in a city will damage the economy because religious organizations are exempt from property taxes. Chris Hoene, a research manager for the National League of Cities, said some cities had become inventive in devising ways to collect money from churches. For example, some cities have begun to tax religious organizations’ profit-generating enterprises, including publishing and gift-shop sales.

May noncurriculum-related student groups use school media to advertise their meetings?

Yes. A student group may use school media — such as the public-address system, school paper, and school bulletin board — as long as other noncurriculum-related student groups are allowed to do so. Any policy concerning the use of school media must be applied to all noncurriculum-related student groups in a nondiscriminatory manner. Schools, however, may issue disclaimers indicating that extracurricular student groups are not school-sponsored or endorsed.


What control does the school retain over student meetings in a limited open forum?

The Equal Access Act does not take away a school’s authority to establish reasonable time, place, and manner regulations for a limited open forum. For example, a school may establish for its student clubs a reasonable meeting time on any one school day, a combination of days, or all school days. It may assign the rooms in which student groups can meet. It may enforce order and discipline during the meetings. The key, however, is that the school’s time, place, and manner regulations must be uniform, nondiscriminatory, and neutral in viewpoint.

May the school exclude any student extracurricular group?

Yes. According to guidelines endorsed by a broad coalition of educational and religious liberty organizations, “student groups that are unlawful, or that materially and substantially interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activities, may be excluded. However, a student group cannot be denied equal access simply because its ideas are unpopular. Freedom of speech includes the ideas the majority may find repugnant.” *

Most schools require students to submit a statement outlining the purpose and nature of the proposed club. School officials do not have to allow meetings of groups that advocate violence or hate or engage in illegal activity. This does not mean, however, that schools may bar students from forming clubs to discuss controversial social and legal issues such as abortion or sexual orientation. Again, student-initiated clubs in a limited open forum may not be barred on the basis of the viewpoint of their speech. Some schools require parental permission for students to join an extracurricular club. Although this step is not required by the Equal Access Act, it has enabled schools to keep the forum open in communities where student clubs have sparked controversy.

* “The Equal Access Act: Questions and Answers,” found in Haynes & Thomas, Finding Common Ground (2001).

What may a school do to make it clear that it is not promoting, endorsing or otherwise sponsoring noncurriculum-related student groups?

A school may issue a disclaimer that plainly states that in affording such student groups an opportunity to meet, it is merely making its facilities available, nothing more.

Are religious displays on public property — such as Ten Commandments in historical-documents exhibits — legal?

The question of whether a religious display on government property is constitutional requires a multi-step analysis. First, one should ask, who is funding and erecting the display? If a private group wants to place a religious monument on public property, then a free-expression analysis should be conducted, looking into such things as the type of forum in question. If, as in this case, a government entity is attempting to post a religious document, then a separate line of questions must be raised.

Religious displays on public property can be legal, but they must pass constitutional muster by not violating the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which requires government “neutrality” towards religion. In deciding whether or not particular religious displays violate the establishment clause, courts look to two Supreme Court tests, the Lemon test and the endorsement test.

The Lemon test poses three questions: 1) Did the state actor have a secular purpose in posting the documents; 2) was the primary effect of the action to advance or promote religion; and 3) was there excessive entanglement between government and religion in the given activity? The government conduct must survive all three of these prongs if the action is to survive constitutional muster.

A more recent test that has gained popularity in the courts is the endorsement test. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor first outlined this test in her concurring opinion in the 1983 decision Lynch v. Donnelly, which involved a city-owned holiday display containing religious elements in a Pawtucket, R.I., park. This approach examines the following questions: Did the state actor subjectively intend to promote religion through its actions, and would the reasonable observer interpret the actions of the state as an endorsement of religion?

The elements of both tests should be examined before a government representative posts any religious documents or engages in other forms of religious expression.

Two cases decided in June 2005 by the U.S. Supreme Court illustrate how even the high court can reach very different conclusions in ruling on seemingly similar religious-display cases. Both McCreary County v. ACLU and Van Orden v. Perry involved displays of the Ten Commandments on public property. In writing for the 5-4 majority in McCreary, Justice David Souter used the Lemon test and determined that the Ten Commandments displays in the two Kentucky courthouses conveyed a religious message to the public, failing to satisfy the first prong of the Lemon test that the display must have a secular purpose. Therefore, the Court majority found the displays in McCreary were unconstitutional.

In Van Orden, which was decided on the same day as McCreary, the high court ruled that a Ten Commandments monument on the Texas State Capitol grounds was constitutional. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in writing the plurality opinion for the Court, was quick in dismissing the Lemon test as the appropriate way to evaluate the case. (The vote was 4-1-4.) Instead, Rehnquist focused on the nature and setting of the monument. The monument was part of a larger display containing 17 monuments and 21 historical markers celebrating the “people, ideals, and events that compose Texan identity.” In determining that the monument was of a secular purpose, and therefore constitutional, Justice Stephen Breyer in his concurring opinion noted that because the monument had been on display for 40 years before being challenged, it “suggests more strongly than can any set of formulaic tests that few individuals, whatever their system of beliefs, are likely to have understood the monument amounting, in any significantly detrimental way, to a government effort to favor a particular religious sect.”

Later that same year, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held in ACLU v. Mercer County that another Kentucky County courthouse Ten Commandments display was constitutional. In this case, a Mercer County resident had requested permission to hang a display titled “Foundations of American Law and Government” in the courthouse. The display included the Ten Commandments, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Magna Carta, Star-Spangled Banner, Bill of Rights and other historical documents. The 6th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling that because the Ten Commandments was part of an exhibit and was not, in any way, more prominently displayed than any of the other documents, the display had a secular purpose in educating the public rather than endorsing religion.

Are religious holiday displays on public property constitutional?

It depends. Determining the constitutionality of religious holiday displays requires an analysis that is heavily “fact-driven,” meaning the slightest change in facts could completely change whether or not a holiday display is constitutional. Three U.S. Supreme Court cases deal specifically with this question. In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) the Court held that a city-sponsored crèche in a public park did not violate the establishment clause because the display included other “secular” symbols, such as a teddy bear, dancing elephant, Christmas tree, and Santa Claus house. In Allegheny v. ACLU (1989) the Court found that a Nativity scene in a county courthouse accompanied by a banner that read “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (“Glory to God in the Highest”), was unconstitutional because it was “indisputably religious,” rather than secular, in nature. In 1995 in Capitol Square Review & Advisory Board v. Pinette the Court held that a private group of individuals (in this case the Ku Klux Klan) could erect a cross in the Ohio statehouse plaza during the holiday season. In reaching its decision, the Court heavily relied on the fact that the KKK had requested permission to display the cross in the same manner as any other private group was required to do, that the public park had often times been open to the public for various religious activities, and that the KKK expressly disclaimed any government endorsement of the cross with written language on the cross.

Despite the Supreme Court’s providing these baseline principles in religious holiday display cases, courts around the country have a difficult time in their application. For example, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a holiday display in a government building violated the establishment clause because the display lacked sufficient secular content. (Amancio v. Town of Somerset, 28 F. Supp. 2d 677 (D. Mass. 1998).) Included in the display was a Nativity scene, Christmas tree and Santa Claus. Contrast that decision with a ruling out of the 8th Circuit in which it was held that a holiday display that contained candy canes, Christmas tree, snowman, wrapped gifts and a crèche was constitutional. (ACLU v. City of Florissant, 186 F.3d 1095 (8th Cir. 1999).) The 1st Circuit and 8th Circuit clearly are split, illustrated by these two decisions, in how to interpret Lynch and Allegheny.

Some circuits, however, have applied the trio of cases with great consistency. For example, the 3rd Circuit has held that a display depicting a Hanukkah menorah, Christmas trees, Kwanzaa candles, a sled and Frosty the Snowman, among other things, was constitutional. (ACLU v. Schundler, 168 F.3d 92 (1999).) This court adhered strictly to the decisions in Lynch and Donnelly in reaching its decision. The 2nd Circuit also reached a similar decision in a holiday display case that included a crèche, Christmas tree, Hanukkah menorah, and a posted sign that stated that the display was privately sponsored. (Elewski v. City of Syracuse, 123 F. 3d 51 (2nd Cir. 1997).)

How can an individual ensure that a religious holiday display that she erects is constitutional? First of all, any holiday display erected on private property is immune from any constitutional challenges. Secondly, if an individual or group of individuals decide to set up a holiday display on public property (i.e. parks, courthouses, town halls, etc) he should petition the appropriate authorities for authorization to erect such a display. If the site has been home to a variety of religious displays in the past, it is likely permission will be granted.

If a prisoner who practiced the Sikh religion asked to wear a kirpan (small dagger), saying he needed to wear the kirpan to express his religious faith, must prison officials grant the request?

No, it is likely that prison officials could refuse this request, even if motivated by sincere religious belief, because of legitimate safety concerns. The courts grant a good deal of discretion to prison officials when it comes to safety considerations. Safety is a paramount concern in prisons and is termed a legitimate penological interest.

Should society care about inmates’ religious rights?

Whatever legal standard is used to resolve inmate freedom-of-religion lawsuits, some in society ask: “Who cares?” Many people believe that inmates forfeited their rights when they committed their crimes. But others believe society should try to encourage inmates to practice their religious faith.

“Let’s face it. Most inmates do get out of prison at some point,” says David Fahti, a prison expert. “And the single best predictor of whether an inmate will do OK when they reenter society is whether they maintain community ties when they are in prison.

“There are many reasons why we should recognize the religious rights of inmates,” Fahti says. “Our country was founded on principles of religious freedom. Many people came to this country to flee religious persecution in other countries. As long as a prisoner’s practice of religion does not interfere with prison security, there is simply no reason to deny an inmate’s religious rights.

Adds Keith Defasio, a prisoners’-rights advocate, “Even though inmates are incarcerated for crimes, they should still be entitled to their constitutional dignities. Where are we as a democracy if we can give and take away constitutional rights?”


Has the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of religious exemptions to state-compelled vaccination?

No Supreme Court ruling explicitly establishes a position on religious exemptions to state-compelled vaccination. However, it is clear from the Court’s establishment-clause rulings that it is unlikely for all such exemptions to be found in violation of the First Amendment. What is less clear is whether or not the Court would find the free-exercise clause to mandate the inclusion of religious exemptions. For this reason, the status of religious exemptions to state-compelled vaccinations is still very much unclear. What the Court has found, however, is that a state has the authority to require its citizens to receive certain inoculations. This authority was established in 1905 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, where the Court ruled that Massachusetts had the authority to require its citizens to be inoculated against smallpox.

Which states require immunizations for public schoolchildren, and which offer religious exemptions?

All states currently require children to follow at least some form of standardized immunization schedule in order to be enrolled in public school. Vaccinations often required by this schedule include those against diphtheria, whooping cough, and the measles. Of the 50 states, all offer some exemptions for religious opposition to vaccination except Mississippi and West Virginia.

How are exemption requests evaluated?

States generally apply one of three standards for evaluating religious-exemption requests.

1. Parents requesting the exemption must be a member of a recognized religious organization that is opposed to vaccination.

2. Parents must demonstrate a sincere and genuinely held religious belief that opposes one or all vaccinations.

3. Parents must simply sign a statement confirming that they are religiously opposed to vaccination and would like an exemption.

Are religious exemptions the only way to opt out of mandatory vaccination?

No, all states include a medical exemption in their vaccination policy, and almost half of the states offer philosophical exemptions in addition to their medical and religious accommodations.