Religious Expression in Public Schools

Separating Fact from Fiction

Many questions remain unanswered about the degree of religious expression permissible in the public schools. Due in large part to misinformation circulated by the Religious Right, many people have the wrong impression about the law governing issues such as student Bible clubs, distribution of religious literature, invocations and benedictions in graduation ceremonies, and the ability of religious organizations to use public school facilities. This pamphlet seeks to clarify typical questions about religion and public schools.

Q> Are student religious groups permitted to meet on school grounds?

A> Generally, yes. Depending upon the school's policy of allowing noncurriculum student clubs to meet on public school property, student religious groups may be provided the same degree of access to a school's facilities. The Equal Access Act (EAA) was passed by Congress in 1984 in order to prevent discrimination against student groups in public secondary schools which have created "open forums" for student expression. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the EAA in Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990). Essentially the Court stated that if a secondary school allows other noncurriculum student clubs to meet, it must afford a religious club the same access.

Q> What restrictions may be placed on such student religious clubs?

A> First and foremost, student religious clubs may not be school sponsored or related to the curriculum. The clubs must be completely student-initiated, and student-run; school personnel may not direct or participate in the religious clubs in any manner. In addition, because the clubs are considered extra-curricular, they must meet during noninstructional time, usually before or after the school day. Finally, while the clubs may invite outside speakers - such as youth ministers - no outside person may attend regularly or attend the student clubs. In essence, the clubs are to provide opportunity for voluntary student religious expression, not to serve as staging areas for proselytizing by local churches.

Q> What about other religious organizations using public school facilities?

A> Outside religious groups are barred from public schools during school hours. This includes prohibiting groups such as the Gideons from distributing Bibles during the school day. School districts are also not required to open their school facilities after hours to outside groups. However, if a public school system does allow secular groups to use it's facilities after instructional hours it may be required to afford similar access to religious groups.

In Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 113. S.Ct. 2141 (1993), the Court held that a school district could not deny an evangelical church access to a school's facilities after school hours because it had allowed similar use by other secular organizations. However, the Lamb's Chapel decision was limited to weekend and evening access only and not to outside use during the school day. Allowing religious groups to meet immediately following the school day still raises Establishment Clause concerns because of a likelihood of associating the groups with school programs. The wisest course is to restrict access by all outside groups to times well after the end of the instructional day.

Q> Can public school students bring their Bibles to school or pray at school?

A> Yes. As part of their freedom of speech, students may bring their Bibles or pray at school so long as it does not interrupt or interfere with the rights of other students and the educational function of the school. Students may read the Bible and engage in informal religious discussion with classmates during lunch period or other free times during the school day. The Supreme Court has never prohibited individual student religious expression in the public schools.

Q> Can the Bible or other sacred texts be used in a public school class?

A> Yes, so long as the religious material is presented from an objective, nonproselytizing perspective and is part of a regular academic course. On more than one occasion the Supreme Court has affirmed the propriety of students learning about religious history and traditions. However, courts have repeatedly struck down attempts as indoctrination presented through the guise of courses in Biblical literature or comparative religion.

Q> Can students distribute religious material or proselytize their fellow classmates?

A> Notions of student free speech include the ability to share one's religious faith. However, school authorities may limit the distribution of religious material or proselytizing within the school so long as the school's restrictions are neutral (not directed at prohibiting religious expression) and are related to reasonable time, place, and manner considerations. Valid considerations include preventing student harassment and crowding and the accumulation of litter in the hallways. In addition, schools that do not have open campuses (but impose neutral restrictions on unauthorized student gatherings) may not be required to allow organized religious gatherings outside the confines of the EAA, such as prayer rallies around flagpoles.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State New address:

1816 Jefferson Place,
Washington, DC

For information or membership in the Rochester area, reply to: Rochester Chapter Americans United for Separation of Church and State
31 Appian Drive,
NY 14606-4717
(716) 334-2989, 247-5587