As students around the country head back to school this month, it’s a prudent time for a refresher on the rights of students and their families when it comes to religious freedom and church-state separation in public schools.
America’s public schools serve 90 percent of schoolchildren – meaning our schools are a unifying force in society and must serve families from a wide array of backgrounds, including a vast religious and nonreligious diversity. Public schools must be inclusive places that welcome all students, regardless of religion, race or ability.
Public schools must respect the religious beliefs of the students they serve while not showing favoritism for any particular religious belief or allowing coercive proselytism to occur in schools. Students should never be pressured by teachers, coaches, other school officials or classmates to pray or believe a certain way.
Earlier this year, Americans United launched “Know Your Rights,” a guide for public school students on our Students for Church/State Separation page. It outlines students’ rights and provides resources for students looking to make their schools more inclusive or to report possible violations of church-state separation.
Some of the pointers on the site include:
- In their free time, students have a right to pray, discuss religion and read religious texts as long as the activities don’t interfere with instructional time, are student-led and don’t force others to participate. Students may even form religion clubs that must be treated the same as other nonreligious clubs; these clubs can’t be led by adults or given preferential treatment by schools.
- Students and their families should be able to freely attend school events such as football games, assemblies and graduations without worrying about being exposed to school-endorsed prayers, particularly those led by adults. Even student-led prayers at these events may violate constitutional rights when the school lends its symbolic approval to the prayers.
- Students are entitled to a secular education. Science classes should offer an evidence-based curriculum that includes evolution and does not include creationism or similar, religion-based creation stories. Likewise, health classes should not offer a religion-based sex education curriculum. While public schools may include study of religious texts such as the Bible or Quran as part of classes that explore topics like comparative religion, literature, history, music and culture, the texts should not be taught in a proselytizing manner or in a way that promotes one faith while ignoring others.
- Public schools should make accommodations whenever possible for students of minority religions, including by letting them wear items of faith such as a hijab or yarmulke, or by working with students who miss school for religious holidays.
- Public schools should not allow religious beliefs to be used to set public policy, particularly in terms of discrimination against LGBTQ students. School-sponsored clubs and events should be open to all students, regardless of their sexual orientation. And schools should not adopt policies that bar transgender students from using restroom and locker room facilities that conform with their gender identities.
This “Know Your Rights” guide is a timely primer on students’ rights in public schools – not just because schools are returning to session, but also because students’ rights to a secular public education are being challenged around the country.
Americans United remains in litigation with a Louisiana school district where broad religious freedom violations have been reported by families. A high school football coach in Washington state has petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case of whether he could lead athletes in prayers on the football field immediately following games. Schools still are violating students’ rights to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem. And policies over whether transgender students can use restrooms that align with their gender identities are being challenged.
That’s why it’s more important than ever for students and families to know how religious freedom should work in public schools. After reading our guide, if you’re concerned that your public school isn’t respecting church-state separation, please use this form to report the violation and our Legal Department will look into it.