Federal Guidelines for Religious Expression in Public Schools

What are the ground rules for religious expression in public schools?

Secretary of Education Richard Riley, at the direction of President Clinton, issued guidelines in 1995 and updated them in 1998 to reflect recent court decisions.

A synopsis of the guidelines:

  • Students 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.

  • Local school authorities have "substantial discretion" to impose rules of order but may not structure the rules to discriminate against religious activity or speech.

  • Students may attempt to persuade peers about religious topics as they would any other topics, but schools should stop such speech that constitutes harassment.

  • Students may participate in before- or after-school events with religious content, such as "see-you-at-the-flagpole" gatherings, on the same terms they can participate in other noncurricular activities on school premises.

  • Teachers and administrators are prohibited from either encouraging or discouraging religious activity and from participating in such activity with students.

  • Public schools may not provide religious instruction but may teach about religion.

  • Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments. The work should be judged by ordinary academic standards and against other "legitimate pedagogical concerns." Students may distribute religious literature on the same terms other literature unrelated to curriculum can be distributed.

  • Schools have "substantial discretion" to excuse students from lessons objectionable on religious or other conscientious grounds. But students generally don't have a federal right to be excused from lessons inconsistent with religious beliefs or practices.

  • Schools may actively teach civic values and morals, even if some of those values also happen to be held by religions.

  • Students may display religious messages on clothing to the same extent they may display other comparable messages.

[Source: Kevin Simpson. "Nation searches its soul" (sidebar: "Federal Guidelines"), Denver Post, 20 February 2000. Original URL: http://www.denverpost.com:80/news/relig0220.htm]

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Web page created 24 May 2000. Last modified 24 April 2005.