Teacher's Rights

Guidance Counselor: Is it legal for a guidance counselor to discuss God/religion with students, as long as students want to or initiate it?

Teacher: If teachers, administrators, and counselors cannot talk about religion on campus, to whom do students go for help?

Teacher: Student rights are clearly spelled out concerning religious freedoms in school. But what are teacher rights concerning religious beliefs? Can teachers legally display religious jewelry or clothing? How far can a teacher go short of evangelism?

In the case of a tragedy or an individual student's need for counseling, if a student brings up his or her faith, the student should be permitted to talk about it. The counselor should let discussion of religion come from the student, and then should refer the student to parents or clergy for answers. The question of what teachers may or may not wear to teach has not been settled by the courts. Most legal experts agree that teachers may wear modest religious jewelry, but not proselytizing messages. Your school district or state may have rules or guidelines for you to consult.

Students may discuss religion in the classroom, if it is relevant to the classroom topic being discussed and is not coercive or disruptive. Students may also distribute religious materials and invite other students to attend religious events, subject to the school's time, place and manner restrictions.

Teacher: May I, as a teacher, keep a Bible on or in my desk?

There is no court case addressing this issue in particular, but in the interest of promoting an atmosphere of fairness and respect, it may be a good idea for teachers to keep any personal devotional items out of sight and to read them only when students are not present. Otherwise, Bibles may be in the room for instructional use, as well as Qur'ans and other religious texts.

Teacher: If a student asks about my religious beliefs, can I answer openly and honestly?

There is no legally binding answer to this question, unless you are a teacher in Utah. (In that case, consult the Utah State Education Code.) The question is one of sensitivity. Many teachers who have responded to this question in workshops on religious freedom in the schools have given different answers. A general rule of thumb is that the younger the student, the more cautious the teacher should be to respond neutrally. The younger the student, the harder it is to distinguish between the teacher as a private person and the teacher as an authority figure. In the case of very young students, it is best to be sensitive to the pressure children can feel to "be like" and "be liked by" the teacher.

With older students, many teachers feel that being honest and open improves the classroom dynamic and provides a "teachable moment" in which students can learn how the religion clauses of the First Amendment apply to teachers and students. Other teachers prefer not to identify themselves religiously or politically.


Student and Teacher Rights

Teacher: Many students ask whether or not they have the right to wear T-shirts proclaiming either their adherence to Satanism or the Wiccan religion. Many schools have banned such as improper, while other more traditional Christian religions are widely accepted in the school's dress code. Those students see such a prohibition as a violation of their freedom of religion. Can students wear religious symbols to school?

Student religious or political messages may only be censored if the school can reasonably forecast a "substantial disruption" (Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969) or if the content is vulgar (Bethel School District v. Fraser, 1986) or if it advocates illegal use of drugs (Morse v. Frederick, 2007). School policies regarding student attire must be written and applied in a way that is viewpoint neutral.

In states that have religious freedom acts, guiding questions, such as whether the stated religious belief is a sincerely held one, whether or not wearing the garment poses a significant burden to the student's free expression, and whether banning student attire serves a strong interest of the school (such as order and safety) may be used on a case-by-case basis.

Teacher: Can I allow students to express their religious beliefs?

Student: Is it legal to carry a Bible to class?

Parent: Can my child take his Bible to school and read a verse to the class? The teacher has told the students they cannot read a Bible verse and cannot pray at school.

Students may freely express their religious beliefs or carry a Bible, so long as they are not disruptive to the class and school day. The prohibition on promoting, inhibiting, or establishing religion applies to teachers, counselors and administrators as representatives of the state, and, in some states to students when they are leading a "captive audience."

A student may read aloud from his or her Bible in class only when this reading serves a secular, non-devotional purpose.


Teacher: Can students pray individually in school?

Teacher: If a student asks for time to pray, can I grant it?

Teacher: Is organized prayer legal?

Teacher: Can teams pray before games?

Student: Why, if religious freedom is in the Constitution, are we not allowed to pray in school?

Students in the public school may pray alone or in groups a number of times during the school day, as long as they do not coerce other students or disrupt the school day activities or lessons. In most states, no school official or employee may participate in or lead prayer with students. Prayer among students at school or at school-sponsored events must be student initiated and student led.


Clubs and Other Before and After-School Activities

Teacher: Can students be denied the right to have a Bible study on campus before, after or outside of the school day?

Teacher: What are the guidelines for students witnessing to other students at school, for example a religious club?

Teacher: Can faculty members supervise, be present during or participate in religious clubs or activities with students?

Student: If Christians can have a club, why can't Wiccans have one, too?

Student: Are students allowed to print information in school publications promoting mission trips and such?

The Equal Access Act of 1984 (20 U.S.C. 4071-74) governs non-curriculum related clubs in secondary schools. According to the act, in schools that allow non-curriculum related clubs, students may form religious clubs on the same basis as other extra-curricular clubs. Any rules or procedures that apply to all non-curriculum clubs also apply to the religious clubs.

Equal Access religious clubs must be student initiated and student led. The school may assign its faculty to attend meetings for liability purposes, but school faculty may not engage in the club activities. The same rules apply for all religious clubs, Christian and non-Christian. Clubs may only be denied permission to form if they violate fair and content-neutral guidelines applied by the school to all clubs.

Furthermore, most legal experts now agree that students have a right to distribute religious materials at school and invite other students to attend religious events, subject to the school's time, place and manner restrictions.

Curriculum, Assignments and Homework

Teacher: How can we introduce religion in the classroom without making any student feel that his or her religion is being either privileged or denigrated?

Religion and the tenets and texts of religions should be presented to the class when there is an academic purpose for doing so. A balanced approach to the yearlong curriculum will include the faiths as they normally arise in history, art, language and other classes.

Student: Why don't we study world religions? We should know about religions other than our own.

Student: With the variety of religions we have, America has become a proud, diverse country. A teacher's job is to teach students about the many different religions around the world and to explain the significance of their beliefs. Learning about religion is not a bad thing. So why do people today make a big issue about the beliefs of other religions?

Teacher: May a teacher teach about the religions of immigrants to the United States between the founding of this country and the 1890's-especially in comparing and contrasting the roles of women and children, education, government and citizens' responsibilities in these areas?

Teacher: Can we discuss various religious texts, such as the Bible, as literature in an English class?

Teacher: Is the performance of sacred music at public school concerts a violation of the First Amendment?

Teacher: I have seen and heard of schools being so worried about getting sued for any mention of religion or God or prayer in school, they completely ban the topic altogether. Is that not equally constitutionally wrong?

Teaching about religion, when done in an objective and fair academic manner, is consistent with the First Amendment. In the Supreme Court's decision in Abington v. Schempp (1963), Justice Tom Clark wrote:

It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be affected consistently with the First Amendment."

Schools should include religion in the curriculum in order to ensure that students receive a complete education. The National Council for the Social Studies concludes:

"Omitting study about religions gives students the impression that religions have not been, and are not now, part of the human experience. Religions have influenced the behavior of both individuals and nations, and have inspired some of the world's most beautiful art, architecture, literature, and music. History, our own nation's religious pluralism, and contemporary world events are testimony that religion has been and continues to be an important culture influence." NCSS Board of Directors, 1984

But how do we decide which faith traditions should be included? Factors that may be weighed in making this determination are those traditions that have played a significant role in the subject matter or historical period being studied, and the diversity present in the community.

How much attention should be paid to each faith tradition? Again, a balanced approach will include the faiths as they normally arise in the history, art, or language arts course. For example, a music program in December could be a balance of music from religious as well as secular sources, and the music program throughout the year could represent a diversity of cultures and religions.

Teacher: Is it okay to explain the benefits of religious meditation and prayer to the students?

Once again, the teacher in this case must ask what the academic purpose of this lesson is. If there is a legitimate academic purpose that does not have the effect of promoting or denigrating religion, then it may be permissible; but it is not permissible to involve students in the activities of "meditation and prayer" in the classroom, nor is it advisable to role-play any religious activity or ritual.

Student: Am I allowed to express my religious beliefs in a painting or mural at school?

Students may freely express themselves religiously in class discussions, artwork, and assignments where their religious perspective is relevant to the topic. Schools have the right to determine the content of school-wide displays, but schools may not ban students' religious artwork simply because of its religious content.

Teaching Evolution

Teacher: Are teachers allowed to discuss any theory other than Evolution in schools as an alternative to Evolution?

Teacher: It is my understanding that if a student initiates a discussion on Creationism, it is allowed, as long as the teacher does not advocate Creationism as fact. Is that true? Students have told me that some teachers have not been open to discussion of Creationism in science class when the teacher brings up Evolution. Evolution has been taught as fact, not theory, and teachers are afraid to allow students to bring up alternative theories.

Student: If we truly have freedom of religion, why can't teachers (especially the science teachers) teach Evolution and Creationism and let the students decide for themselves?

Some teachers and scholars of educational theory support "teaching the controversy" by allowing science teachers to also present the dissenting voices within the scientific community who challenge the dominant view of evolutionary theory. Students may bring up their own religious views in class, and teaching about these views as religious views is also constitutionally permissible.

In an important court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), a Pennsylvania federal district court found that the school board had violated the Establishment Clause when it required teachers to present Intelligent Design as an alternative theory to Evolution. Teachers were required to read a statement in science classes, asserting that Evolution is an unproven theory and noting an alternative theory, Intelligent Design. This theory was explained in texts available to students in the school library.

The issue of Intelligent Design has not been tested in other federal courts, and there is no nationally binding court ruling on it. New conflicts over Intelligent Design and other challenges to the teaching of Evolution are certain to arise. Refer to Online Resources to find more information about this controversy.

Teacher: Can a teacher read from the Bible to answer any creation questions that may be asked during class discussion?

A teacher may read from the Bible to clarify what the Bible says about creation, not how the world was created. The Bible may also be analyzed for its literary value. A teacher may not, however, read from the Bible for devotional purposes or to promote or inculcate a religious viewpoint.


Teacher: What kind of holiday decorations can I display, if the holiday has a religious significance - holidays such as Easter, Christmas and Passover?

Student: Is it illegal for public schools to have a Christian themed Christmas program at school?

Schools may not celebrate religious holidays, but they may teach about them as they normally arise in the curriculum. So long as the entire yearlong curriculum is balanced with regard to religions, any religion may be taught to provide a complete and well-rounded education. Teachers may use artifacts, photos, and symbols to teach about the various religions and their holidays only for the limited time those are being discussed in the classroom. Religious decorations should not be displayed without an academic purpose. Many school districts have specific regulations about this, and those regulations should be consulted for guidance.


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