Schools’ use of religion acceptable

Sunday, November 24, 1996

Is it legal to display religious symbols or messages in public
school offices and classrooms?

— Gwen Watson, Nashville, Tenn.

Yes, it is if the religious symbols and messages are being used temporarily
in the classroom as a teaching aid or resource. Yes, also, if
the symbols or messages are incorporated into student expression
that is on display.

The answer is “no” if school officials put up religious
or anti-religious messages on a permanent basis. Under the First
Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, public school officials are
representatives of the government during the school day. In that
role, they must be careful neither to inculcate nor inhibit religion.
Teachers and administrators must be neutral toward religion while
on the job.

Neutrality, however, does not mean keeping religion out of the
public school. A world history teacher, for example, may display
religious symbols and messages as part of teaching about Judaism,
Christianity, Islam, and other religions. In a civics class,
the Ten Commandments might be studied and displayed as part of
learning about the origins of our legal system.

When these units are finished, the displays come down.

Elementary teachers have many natural opportunities to discuss
religion when studying different cultures, communities, and holidays.
In teaching about what Passover means in the Jewish faith or
what Christians believe about Christmas, teachers may use the
symbols and scriptures associated with those traditions.

The cultural symbols linked with various religious holidays,
such as Christmas trees or Easter bunnies, may not be “religious”
in a strict legal sense. But they may be seen as religious by
people who do not participate in those holidays. Local school
communities need to be sensitive to this by working together to
decide which, if any, cultural symbols to display in the school.

Unlike teachers and administrators, students do not have to be
neutral about religion because they are not government representatives. This means that students are free to engage in religious activity in the public schools as long as they don't disrupt the educational process or infringe on the rights of other students.

In the classroom, students have the right to express their religious
views during a class discussion or as part of a written assignment
or art activity. Of course, such expression must be relevant
to the subject being discussed and meet the academic requirements
of the assignment. Student art or written work that has religious
content may be displayed on the same basis as any other student

Administrators and counselors should not put up religious or
anti-religious messages or symbols in school offices frequented
by students. Students and parents need to feel that they will
be treated fairly in our public schools, without regard to their
religious faith.

First Amendment neutrality toward religion by public school officials
can be summed up in one word: fairness. It is fair and right
to teach about the various religious traditions and display their
symbols, when appropriate, as part of the curriculum And it is
fair and right to make sure that the religious liberty rights
of students are protected in the school environment.

By following the guidelines of the First Amendment, we ensure
that public schools are places where religion and religious conviction
are treated with fairness and respect.