The Biden administration yesterday issued new guidelines on religious activity in public schools.
Americans United hailed the move. AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said in a press statement, “As the administration reaffirms, public schools must be open and inclusive for students of every religion and none.”
This new guidance comes at an important time. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Washington state public school football coach who insisted he had a right to pray at the 50-yard-line after games, even though students were present.
Americans United, which defended the school district in the case, criticized the ruling as a blow to the church-state wall. But it’s important to remember that nothing in it allows teachers or other school personnel to coerce students to pray. Unfortunately, the ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District is being distorted by Christian Nationalist groups that are promoting legislation in some states that forces religion into public schools in inappropriate ways. (The problem is especially acute in Texas.)
Of all the issues Americans United deals with, none is as fraught with misinformation and misunderstanding as this one. Truly voluntary prayer was never banned in public schools. Students have the right to pray in a private, non-disruptive way. They can also read religious books during their free time and, if their school allows student clubs, they can form and join religious clubs. But no student can be compelled, coerced or pressured into taking part in religious worship.
AU has resources
Americans United has some resources that set the record straight. This special issue of AU’s Church & State magazine covers the history of religion in public education and debunks common myths spread by Christian Nationalists.
AU’s Legal Department has produced three important guides that discuss the role of religion in public schools. Written in a user-friendly style, these “Know Your Rights” publications are aimed at students, parents and teachers.
America’s public schools serve children from a variety of faith backgrounds and those who are nonreligious. Ensuring that our public schools remain focused on teaching, not preaching, has been central to AU’s mission for 76 years – and it always will be.