By Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director
(as originally published in The Roanoke Times)
The new school year is about to begin and, as usual, we can expect a lot of confusion and controversy about religion in public schools. While the issue raises some complicated questions, the general principle is simple: A student has the right to exercise religion. A school may not exercise religion.
In general, students may express their religious beliefs at any place and time that they otherwise are allowed to speak. They may gather at the flagpole for a prayer before school. They may pray before class or before meals. They may talk to their peers about religion and distribute religious literature in the hallway. If they are allowed to post materials on their locker, they must be allowed to post the Ten Commandments or other religious material. If they are allowed to wear T-shirts and jewelry to school, they must be allowed to wear religious T-shirts and jewelry.
The ACLU has consistently defended students’ virtually unlimited right to religious expression in public school. Why, then, is the ACLU so often portrayed as trying to restrict religion in public school?
It is because we also insist on protecting students’ right to be free from school sponsorship of religion. More than 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that official school prayers are unconstitutional. The court noted that the framers of our Constitution knew “that one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the Government’s placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services.” Even if the prayer is supposedly voluntary, students face tremendous pressure to go along with the religious expression of their teachers, and not to appear different to their peers.
For the same reason, public schools may not promote religion in other ways, such as posting the Ten Commandments in the hallway or including religious songs as part of the official program at assemblies, football games or graduation.
When the ACLU tries to get public schools to abide by these constitutional requirements, we are often accused of hostility to religion. As the Supreme Court wrote in the first school prayer case, nothing could be more wrong. “It is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that . . . government . . . should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.”
An incident this past spring illustrates the point. A concerned parent wrote to us that officials at Thomas Walker High School in Lee County were actively promoting Christianity. Among other things, the formal graduation ceremony included a Christian hymn. Seniors were required to learn the song in music class so they could sing it at graduation. We wrote to the school and explained that such religious sponsorship by a public school was unconstitutional.
The response was fast and furious. Copies of the ACLU letter were distributed widely in the county. At the school, students and teachers said that whoever had complained about the hymn were “troublemakers” or “Satanists.” We received many angry phone calls and emails from Lee County, complaining that we were infringing on students’ right to freedom of speech and religion.
When the vast majority of a community agree with the religious beliefs promoted by the school, it is easy for them to forget that other students’ rights are at stake. Non-Christian students got the message that they did not belong, that this graduation was only for Christian students. Students have the right to sing a Christian song at almost any time or place, but doing so as part of a the official school graduation turns graduation into a religious program.
Given the vitriolic reactions from Lee County residents, it is no surprise that students of minority faiths — or no faith at all — often do not feel comfortable coming forward when their school improperly promotes religion. So it is especially important that school officials understand their obligation to remain neutral toward religion. The Virginia State Board of Education has issued Guidelines Concerning Religious Activity in Public Schools to help.
Sometimes it is difficult to draw the line between student religious speech, which the Constitution protects, and official religious speech, which the Constitution prohibits. Still, schools usually won’t go wrong if they follow the general rule: A student has the right to exercise religion. A school may not exercise religion.