Public schools & religious communities

Monday, September 16, 2002

This section on public schools and religious communities contains consensus guidelines drafted and endorsed by a broad range of 15 religious and educational groups. These guidelines are intended to reflect current law in this area, though on some questions there may be no controlling Supreme Court opinion and the lower courts may be divided. While understanding the legal framework is essential in considering the role of religion in public schools, the law will not supply answers to every question. These consensus guidelines are intended to provide direction to school boards, parents, community members, administrators, teachers and students as they work together to address issues and draft policies concerning public schools and religious communities.

Public schools and religious institutions have different missions, but they share many of the same civic and moral values. Both are located in most neighborhoods, and each is committed within its own role to the well being of children. By working together in ways that are permissible under the First Amendment, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, schools and religious communities can do much to enhance the mission of public education.

Before any school district enters into a cooperative arrangement with any community organization, including religious groups, school officials must be confident that the group provides a safe and secure place for children. In addition, special constitutional considerations apply to cooperative arrangements with religious institutions. Under the First Amendment, public schools must remain neutral among religions and between religion and non-religion. By contrast, religious institutions exist to propagate religious faith and encourage religious practices.

Clearly, then, public schools must be careful when they work with religious institutions, because in important ways these institutions have differing commitments. Although some of the issues discussed here have not been authoritatively decided by the courts, we believe that the constitutional principles and guidelines outlined in this document will enable schools and religious groups to work together for the common good.

These guidelines focus on arrangements between public schools and religious institutions because of the special constitutional implications of those relationships. This focus is not meant to suggest that schools should only seek out religious institutions or that such institutions are preferred providers of assistance to public-school children. We urge schools to seek out a wide range of community organizations, religious and non-religious, without regard to their views on religious issues.

Note: This article sponsored jointly by:

American Jewish Congress
Christian Legal Society
First Amendment Center

The material has also been co-signed by the following organizations:

American Association of School Administrators
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs
National Association of Elementary School Principals
National Association of Evangelicals
National Association of Secondary School Principals
National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA
National PTA
National School Boards Association
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops