How should school officials respond to a request for accommodation of religious practices during the school day?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Enforcing adherence to religious requirements, such as special diet or dress, is the responsibility of a parent, not of the public school.

However, some religious requirements or practices may conflict with school practices or schedules. In those cases, school officials should try to accommodate these needs if feasible. Let’s look at a few examples.

Jehovah’s Witnesses may ask that their children be excused from birthday or holiday activities. Teachers should honor these requests by planning alternate activities or time in the library for affected students.

The school may have a “no caps” policy because of concerns about gang activity. But exemptions should be made for Orthodox Jews and other students who must wear head coverings for religious reasons.

Muslim students may request permission to pray in a designated area during the school day. If space is available, and if the educational process isn’t disrupted, schools should try to grant this request. Schools may not set up “prayer rooms,” but they may find ways to allow students to meet their religious obligations.

Students of various faiths may have dietary restrictions. Under the establishment clause, schools probably cannot prepare special foods to fulfill a student’s particular religious requirements. But schools may help their religious students and others by labeling foods and offering a variety of choices at every meal.

It is not entirely clear under current law how much accommodation schools must make for “free exercise” claims. And the legal requirement to accommodate requests may vary from state to state, depending on state law and state constitutional provisions. Nevertheless, schools uphold the principles of religious liberty and the spirit of the First Amendment when they make every effort to accommodate religious requests for exemption from school policies or practices.