Religious Rights In Public Schools Religious Rights in Public Schools “JESUS in the classroom!” Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? Religion in the public school systems is among the top of the list of controversial topics in American society, We’ve long been advised to avoid this and other religiously politically intertwined subjects in polite conversation. If you’re like most Americans, this topic makes you frustrated, high strung, or at least a little queasy. From the day the 1st amendment right appeared in the U.S. Constitution, to this present day, and surely into our nation’s tomorrows, the proper role of religion in public schools has been, is, and will continue to be a subject of great debate. It is important for school officials, parents, and students to have a clear understanding of the 1st amendment and how it affects their religious rights and the religious rights of others in a public school setting. Unfortunately, most people are confused or misguided when it comes to this issue.
The purpose of this paper is to guide the reader through a clear understanding of the 1st amendment; the impact it has had in education, the religious freedoms it grants to students, and the religious freedoms it grants (or doesn’t grant) to teachers. The Constitution exists precisely so that opinions and judgments, including can be formed, tested, and expressed. These judgments are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree even with the mandate or approval of a majority (Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, 1999). In knowing that, the 1st amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting free exercise thereof .. ” As you can see there are two clauses in this part of the amendment.
The first is known as the Establishment Clause, which simply says that congress cannot establish a religion. The second is known as the Free Exercise Clause, which prohibits congress from removing the right of the people to freely exercise any religion, or none at all. Although these two clauses of the 1st amendment right seem simple to understand and clear and direct in it’s meanings, there is no doubt that “the 1st amendment needs breathing space and room for interpretation, and statutes attempting to restrict or burden the exercise of First Amendment rights must be narrowly drawn (Herndon v. Lowry, 1937).” For example, even the most stringent protection of religious rights would not protect a teacher from sacrificing her students in the name of religion. Every case, whether it be as ridiculous as the one above or a situation that would be much more relevant to every day life is confronted with a question, “was the religious expression used in such circumstances or are they of a nature that creates a clear and present danger?” Congress has a right to prevent those instances that will bring about substantive evils. In the end the question is one of proximity and degree (Holmes, 1999). Since this amendment first appeared in December of 1791, there have been hundreds of court cases, ruling on the religious rights of students, teachers and other officials in public schools. These court cases with their extraordinary impact, have paved the way to the educational system we have today.
Though schools were originally founded for the purpose of inculcating Judeo-Christian values, particularly to teach people how to read the scriptures, John Dewey, the so-called father of modern education, attempted to replace sectarian education and doctrine with a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race (Alley, 1996). Over the years since John Dewey, public schools have become secularized. There is no doubt that public schools have changed dramatically. Because of these changes many people have the mistaken view that religion is forbidden on public campuses. A recent poll appearing in the “Freedom From Religion Foundation” website states that about 60% of the general public is ill informed about the separation of church and state and how it applies in educational settings (Gaylor, 2001). It may come as a surprise to some, but students have many religious rights on public school campuses.
In 1969 the Supreme Court held that students “do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate” and that the First Amendment protects public school students’ rights to express political social and religious views (Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 1969). The following are students’ religious rights in the public school systems. Students have the right to identify their religious beliefs through signs and symbols (Brinkley, 2001) including clothing, jewelry, or any other visible expression. Schools enjoy substantial discretion in adopting policies relating to student dress and school uniforms. Students generally have no federal right to be exempted from religiously-neutral and generally applicable school dress rules based on their religious beliefs or practices; however, schools may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a particular religion, for prohibition or regulation.
Students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages. Religious messages may not be singled out for suppression, but rather are subject to the same rules as generally apply to comparable messages (“A Parent’s Guide”, 2001). Students have the right to talk about their religious beliefs on campus (Brinkley, 2001). Freedom of speech is a fundamental right mandated in the Constitution and does not exclude the schoolyard. Students may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics. School officials, however, should intercede to stop student speech that constitutes harassment aimed at a student or a group of students (Riley, 1998). Students have the right to meet with other religious students (Brinkley, 2001).
Under the federal Equal Access Act, 4 secondary public schools receiving federal funds must allow students to form religious clubs if the school allows other non-curriculum-related clubs to meet during non-instructional time. Non-curriculum-related means any club not directly related to the courses offered by the school. Student religious clubs may have access to school facilities and media on the same basis as other non-curriculum-related student clubs. Public schools are free to prohibit any club activities that are illegal or that would cause substantial disruption of the school (“A Parent’s Guide”, 2001). In 1993, a court held that a school district that opened its classrooms after hours to a range of groups for social, civic, and recreational purposes, including films and lectures about a range of issues such as family values and child-rearing, could not deny access to a religious organization to discuss the same, permissible issues from a religious point of view. Whether or not the classrooms were public forums, the school district could not deny use based on the speaker’s point of view on an otherwise permissible topic (Lamb’s Chapel v. Center). Students have the right to pray on campus (Brinkley, 2001). The Establishment clause of the First Amendment does not prohibit purely private religious speech by students.
Students may pray alone or with others so long as it does not disrupt school activities or is not forced upon others. Specifically, students in informal settings, such as cafeterias and hallways, may pray and discuss their religious views with each other, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other student activities and speech (Riley, 1998). Students have the right to carry or study religious scripture on campus (Brinkley, 2001). The Supreme Court has said that only state-directed Bible reading is unconstitutional. Students have the right to do research papers, speeches, and creative projects with religious themes (Brinkley, 2001). The First Amendment does not forbid all mention of religion in public schools. Students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.
Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school. Students have the right to be exempt (Brinkley, 2001). Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 3, if it is proved that particular lessons substantially burden a student’s free exercise of religion and if the school cannot prove a compelling interest in requiring attendance, the school would be legally required to excuse the student. Student may be exempt from activities and class content that contradict their religious beliefs. Subject to applicable State laws, schools enjoy substantial discretion to excuse individual students from lessons that are objectionable to the student or the students’ pare …