September 21, 2017
How can students in public schools exercise their constitutional religious liberty rights? In part three of our “Back to School” Facebook Live series, FRC policy experts Sarah Perry and Travis Weber discuss this important question. Here is a summary of some key points from this discussion:
- The First Amendment to the Constitution is the basis for religious liberty, particularly in its “free speech” and “free exercise” protections.
- The much talked-about “wall of separation” between church and state that is often misrepresented in our current culture is derived from the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states that the government cannot mandate one faith that people must follow. This notion has often been misapplied to exclude any religious mention or prayer from the public square. In reality, the intent of the Establishment Clause is much more limited—it was meant to protect the “free exercise” of all religions by not “establishing” one religion in particular.
- Two principles should be kept in mind when considering whether an activity is protected by the free expression of religion in a public school setting: 1) is religion being treated equally with non-religion in any particular situation, and 2) is the religious activity or expression student-led or initiated?
- If a student is confronted for and prohibited from wearing a cross necklace, for example, the first step is to establish the facts of the incident. Parents can then take their concerns to the teacher or other official who is involved in the situation. If the situation is not addressed satisfactorily at the school level, public advocacy groups such as FRC, Alliance Defending Freedom, and First Liberty Institute should be contacted in order to draw attention to the situation through the media and for legal advice.
- The Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act was recently passed in Florida, prompted by two incidents of blatant religious liberty violation in which a student was commanded to remove their cross necklace, and another incident in which a student was reprimanded for reading a Bible during their free time.
- The Supreme Court established in Town of Greece v. Galloway that public prayer in a local government setting is constitutional in accord with the Establishment Clause, which means that public school employees like football coach Joe Kennedy should be allowed to take a knee in prayer at a football game.
- A school is permitted to keep order in their environments by limiting rights only when they materially and substantially disrupt the learning environment. Broadly speaking, however, this applies in very limited circumstances.
- Religious clubs must be permitted to operate in the same way as non-religious clubs in public school settings.
- During school, students have the right to pray as they want in a moment of silence and during lunch, read their Bibles, share their faith, hand out literature, and do other religious activities as long as they are not disrupting the school environment.
- Public school teachers, coaches, and officials are seen as representatives of the government and cannot set forth a principle of religion that people must follow. In their private time “off the clock” while at school, they can engage in any religious activities they choose.
- If teachers are unsure about the legality of a religious activity they want to engage in at school, they should seek legal advice before engaging in the activity in order to be safe from having litigation filed against them by a parent or the school.
View the full video to find out more.