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140816.Tweet Chat (religion in schools)by Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director
With a new school year just around the corner, we can expect a lot of confusion and controversy about the role of religion in public schools. Can students exercise their faith during school hours? Can school officials promote one faith over others?
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 are allowed to engage in any other kind of speech. 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 protected and 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 officials’ attempts to promote religion in the school. Over fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that official, school-sponsored prayers are unconstitutional. The Court noted that the framers of our Constitution “knew, some of them from bitter personal experience, 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 look like a dissenter in front of their peers.
For the same reason, public schools may not engage in other forms of religious expression. They may not post the Ten Commandments in the hallway. They may not include religious songs or exercises as part of the official program at assemblies, football games, or graduation.
But 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 each separate government in this country 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 graduation ceremony included a hymn called “Till We Meet Again at Jesus’ Feet.” 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. School officials made copies of the ACLU letter and distributed them widely. In the classroom and the hallways, 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. People said 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. To the students who were not Christian, the song was not an expression of their peers’ religious beliefs; it was the school itself telling them 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 school graduation turns graduation into a religious program.
Given the vitriolic reactions from the community in Lee County, it is no surprise that students of minority faiths – or no faith at all – often do not feel comfortable coming forward when teachers and administrators improperly promote religion in the school. 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.
Our advice to schools? Follow this general rule: a student has the right to exercise religion. A school may not exercise religion. In doing so, schools will teach students respect for different faiths (or no faith at all) and respect for our Constitution.
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