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Religion in Public Schools

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What is a Religious Belief?

The Supreme Court defines religious belief as “whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” This definition comes from the case United States v. Seeger (1965) and includes many non-theistic religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. 

However, in the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Supreme Court ruled that the Seeger definition would only apply to certain statutory laws, such as draft exemptions, but wouldn’t always be used in First Amendment disputes.

The orthodox, and earliest Supreme Court definition of religious belief, referred to in the Seeger case comes from Davis v Beason (1890). The Davis definition of religious belief is “a person's view about his relationship, obligations, and reverence for a Creator.” The Supreme Court has changed its stance on what constitutes a religion over the centuries.  The Seeger case, with the Yoder exemption, is the current definition.

What Religious Rights Do We Have?

The right to free exercise of religion is a fundamental right guaranteed by the First Amendment. You have the right to believe in any religion or no religion at all. The government cannot compel a person to follow a religion or punish someone who does.

What Does It Mean To Not Respect the Establishment of A Religion?

Not respecting the establishment of a religion does not mean that religion and government may not come in contact at all. Rather, the Constitution forbids the government from favoring any religion over another. When the government interacts with religion, it must do so neutrally and have a secular purpose.

Avoiding establishment is often referred to as “separation between church and state.” Although “separation” has been enforced as a legal doctrine, it must be noted that separation does not come from the Constitution. Separation comes from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Danbury bishops, reassuring them that their right to free exercise would not be endangered by a new administration. Although barring establishment of religion often constitutes separation, the line between the establishment clause and separation is very thin.

When Can Church and State Interact?

The Supreme Court has established a test for when church and state may interact. The Lemon Test, named after the case Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), states that church and state may interact when:

  • There is a secular purpose.
  • The principal effect neither advances nor inhibits religion.
  • There is no excessive government entanglement with religion.

What is Prohibited in Public Schools?

Because children are impressionable, courts are reluctant to allow the display of religious messages in schools because they would transmit basic and fundamental values to children linking school and religion. Some examples of prohibited activities include:

  • Teachers wearing clothing that is distinctive of a religion.
  • Reading the Bible, or other religious text, aloud even if participation is voluntary and it is done without comment.
  • Organized prayer even if it is denominationally neutral and participation is voluntary.
  • Daily moments of silence for meditation or prayer even if prayer is voluntary.
  • Distributing Bibles, or other religious texts, on school grounds.
  • Schools establishing a "religion of secularism" by opposing religion, and promoting belief in no religion.
  • Schools requiring the teaching of "creation science."
  • Some school districts do not allow teachers to read the Bible, or other religious text, on their own during school hours or have such items on their desk during school hours.

What Religous Practice is not Prohibited at Schools?

Despite the courts hesitation about allowing religious practices in school, some religious activity is allowed, including:

  • Student initiated prayers that do not involve messages of conversion, such as pre-game football prayers are allowed, though some courts disagree.
  • Classes may study the Bible, and other religious texts, so long as instruction is secular and not for the advancement of religion.
  • Witch costumes on Halloween and discussion of witches in class as part of folklore and fantasy is allowed.
  • Schools must allow equal access to its facilities. That means a school may let religious groups use its facilities for religious purposes as long as the school does not discriminate in who it allows to use its buildings.
  • Students may form religious clubs as long as the school allows other non-curriculum related clubs.

What Should I Do If There is a Conflict Over Religion in a Public School?

If you believe that your child's religious rights are being violated, you should file a complaint with the school district. Each school district has a different way of handling complaints. If you are still unsatisfied after the school district processes your complaint, you may choose to sue the school and the school district.

Should I Contact a Lawyer If I Have Concerns About Religion in a Public School?

A lawyer can help you understand you and your child's Constitutional rights as they apply to religion in public schools. A lawyer can also help you file a lawsuit against the school and school district if you are unsatisfied with the district's response to your complaint.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 03-29-2012 02:08 PM PDT

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