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

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

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.”