United States Department of Education
August 10, 1995
Because of persistent misunderstanding of public policy with regard to religion and the schools among educators, parents, and students, President Clinton directed the Department of Education to articulate clearly the principles that now govern religious expression and the teaching of religion in the public schools. “Religious Expression in Public Schools” (1995) clarifies just what the law is in relation to some of the most contested issues in America. The document is reproduced below along with the statement of President Clinton and the letter of Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to school superintendents.
Nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door. While the government may not use schools to coerce the consciences of our students, or to convey official endorsement of religion, the public schools also may not discriminate against private religious expression during the school day.
Religion is too important in our history and our heritage for us to keep it out of our schools. . .[I]t shouldn’t be demanded, but as long as it is not sponsored by school officials and doesn’t interfere with other children’s rights, it mustn’t be denied.
July l2, 1995
On July 12th, President Clinton directed the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Attorney General, to provide every school district in America with a statement of principles addressing the extent to which religious expression and activity are permitted in our public schools. In response to the President’s request, I am sending to you this statement of principles.
In the last two years, I have visited with many educators, parents, students, and religious leaders. I have become increasingly aware of the real need to find a new common ground and inject fresh air into the growing and, at times divisive debate about religion in our public schools. President Clinton and I hope that this information will provide useful guidance to educators, parents, and students in defining the proper place for religious expression and religious freedom in our public schools.
As the President explained, the First Amendment imposes two basic and equally important obligations on public school officials in their dealings with religion. First, schools may not forbid students acting on their own from expressing their personal religious views or beliefs solely because they are of a religious nature. Schools may not discriminate against private religious expression by students, but must instead give students the same right to engage in religious activity and discussion as they have to engage in other comparable activity. Generally, this means that students may pray in a non-disruptive manner during the school day when they are not engaged in school activities and instruction, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other student speech.
At the same time, schools may not endorse religious activity or doctrine, nor may they coerce participation in religious activity. Among other things, of course, school administrators and teachers may not organize or encourage prayer exercises in the classroom. And the right of religious expression in school does not include the right to have a “captive audience” listen, or to compel other students to participate. School officials should not permit student religious speech to turn into religious harassment aimed at a student or a small group of students. Students do not have the right to make repeated invitations to other students to participate in religious activity in the face of a request to stop.
The statement of principles set forth below derives from the First Amendment. Implementation of these principles, of course, will depend on specific factual contexts and will require careful consideration in particular cases.
Although most schools have been implementing these principles already, some problems have arisen where people are unaware of, or do not understand, these obligations. It is my sincere hope that these principles will help to end much of the confusion regarding religious expression in public schools and that they can provide a basis for school officials, teachers, parents, and students to work together to find common ground—helping us to get on with the important work of education. I want to recognize again the efforts of religious and other civic groups who came together earlier this year to issue a statement of current law on religion in the public schools, from which we drew heavily in developing these principles.
I encourage you to share this information widely and in the most appropriate manner with your school community. Accept my sincere thanks for your continuing work on behalf of all of America’s children.
Richard W. Riley
U.S. Secretary of Education
RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Student prayer and religious discussion: The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not prohibit purely private religious speech by students. Students therefore have the same right to engage in individual or group prayer and religious discussion during the school day as they do to engage in other comparable activity. For example, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray before tests to the same extent they may engage in comparable non-disruptive activities. Local school authorities possess substantial discretion to impose rules of order and other pedagogical restrictions on student activities, but they may not structure or administer such rules to discriminate against religious activity or speech.
Generally, students may pray in a non-disruptive manner when not engaged in school activities or instruction, and subject to the rules that normally pertain in the applicable setting. Specifically, students in informal settings, such as cafeterias and hallways, may pray and discuss their religious views with each other, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other student activities and speech. Students may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics. School officials, however, should intercede to stop student speech that constitutes harassment aimed at a student or a group of students.
Students may also participate in before or after school events with religious content, such as “see you at the flag pole” gatherings, on the same terms as they may participate in other noncurriculum activities on school premises. School officials may neither discourage nor encourage participation in such an event.
The right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion free from discrimination does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate. Teachers and school administrators should ensure that no student is in any way coerced to participate in religious activity.
Graduation prayer and baccalaureates: Under current Supreme Court decisions, school officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation, nor organize religious baccalaureate ceremonies. If a school generally opens its facilities to private groups, it must make its facilities available on the same terms to organizers of privately sponsored religious baccalaureate services. A school may not extend preferential treatment to baccalaureate ceremonies and may in some instances be obliged to disclaim official endorsement of such ceremonies.
Official neutrality regarding religious activity: Teachers and school administrators, when acting in those capacities are representatives of the state and are prohibited by the establishment clause from soliciting or encouraging religious activity, and from participating in such activity with students. Teachers and administrators also are prohibited from discouraging activity because of its religious content, and from soliciting or encouraging antireligious activity.
Teaching about religion: Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion including the Bible or other scripture: the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture) as literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries all are permissible public school subjects. Similarly, it is permissible to consider religious influences on art, music, literature, and social studies. Although public schools may teach about religious holidays, including their religious aspects, and may celebrate the secular aspects of holidays, schools may not observe holidays as religious events or promote such observance by students.
Student assignments: Students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, art-work, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.
Religious literature: Students have a right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature that is unrelated to school curriculum or activities. Schools may impose the same reasonable time, place, and manner or other constitutional restrictions on distribution of religious literature as they do on non-school literature generally, but they may not single out religious literature for special regulation.
Religious excusals: Subject to applicable State laws, schools enjoy substantial discretion to excuse individual students from lessons that are objectionable to the student or the students’ parents on religious or other conscientious grounds. School officials may neither encourage nor discourage students from availing themselves of an excusal option. Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, if it is proved that particular lessons substantially burden a student’s free exercise of religion and if the school cannot prove a compelling interest in requiring attendance, the school would be legally required to excuse the student.
Released time: Subject to applicable State laws, schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided that schools do not encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who do not attend. Schools may not allow religious instruction by outsiders on school premises during the school day.
Teaching values: Though schools must be neutral with respect to religion, they may play an active role with respect to teaching civic values and virtue, and the moral code that holds us together as a community. The fact that some of these values are held also by religions does not make it unlawful to teach them in school.
Student garb: Students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages. Religious messages may not be singled out for suppression, but rather are subject to the same rules as generally apply to comparable messages. When wearing particular attire, such as yarmulkes and head scarves, during the school day is part of students’ religious practice, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act schools generally may not prohibit the wearing of such items.
THE EQUAL ACCESS ACT
The Equal Access Act is designed to ensure that, consistent with the First Amendment, student religious activities are accorded the same access to public school facilities as are student secular activities. Based on decisions of the Federal courts, as well as its interpretations of the Act, the Department of Justice has advised that the Act should be interpreted as providing, among other things, that:
General provisions: Student religious groups at public secondary schools have the same right of access to school facilities as is enjoyed by other comparable student groups. Under the Equal Access Act, a school receiving Federal funds that allows one or more student noncurriculum-related clubs to meet on its premises during noninstructional time may not refuse access to student religious groups.
Prayer services and worship exercises covered: A meeting, as defined and protected by the Equal Access Act, may include a prayer service, Bible reading, or other worship exercise.
Equal access to means of publicizing meetings: A school receiving Federal funds must allow student groups meeting under the Act to use the school media—including the public address system, the school newspaper, and the school bulletin board—to announce their meetings on the same terms as other noncurriculum-related student groups are allowed to use the school media. Any policy concerning the use of school media must be applied to all noncurriculum- related student groups in a nondiscriminatory matter. Schools, however, may inform students that certain groups are not school sponsored.
Lunch-time and recess covered: A school creates a limited open forum under the Equal Access Act, triggering equal access rights for religious groups, when it allows students to meet during their lunch periods or other non-instructional time during the school day, as well as when it allows students to meet before and after the school day.
[“Religious Expression in Public Schools.” United States Department of Education. 10 August 1995. United States Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit Library Archive.]