All over America, public schools are going back into session. Nearly 51 million children attend our nation’s nearly 99,000 public schools. These institutions serve 90% of our young people.
Those students come from various racial backgrounds. Their socio-economic status varies widely. Some come from families that trace their lineage back to the founding period, while others are recent immigrants where English may be a second language. Some are differently abled or require additional learning support. The students represent various sexual orientations and gender expressions. Many have stable home lives, but others don’t.
Their religious backgrounds are diverse, too – public school students are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, Humanist, Pagan, Wiccan, unaffiliated and others. No matter what they believe, public schools can – and do – welcome them all.
Separation protects everyone’s rights
And the only way public schools can do that is by respecting the separation of church and state. School-sponsored, coercive religious activity has no place in our public schools. Prayer and the reading of religious texts are fine if voluntarily chosen by students and done in a non-disruptive manner, but any religious activity that smacks of force or pressure is not permitted.
Most public schools abide by the separation of church and state, but on occasion, some do make missteps. At the same time, aggressive Christian Nationalist organizations are targeting public schools, trying to use them as vehicles for fundamentalist Christian proselytism.
Americans United is here to help. At this time of year, we like to remind people about our “Know Your Rights” guides. Written for the layperson, these guides explain what public schools can and cannot do when it comes to religion.
There are three guides – one for students, one for parents and one for teachers. Please read them and share them widely.
Public schools: critical to a welcoming society
As AU notes, public schools are “an important building block for a diverse, welcoming society.” That’s the society decent people of goodwill want for our nation. It’s a place where public schools serve all children equally but don’t usurp the rights of students and parents by promoting religion.
A crucial step to crafting that society is to, well, know your rights. Check out Americans United’s guides today. After reading them, if you think your school or community is violating those religious freedom rights, please report those violations to AU – our lawyers review every concern that’s reported to us.
Here’s to a happy, safe and productive school year!