Freedom of Religion for K-12 Students

Overview

Public schools are flooded with competing worldviews and philosophies, and biblical truth and moral values are challenged every day. Christian students in public schools have the opportunity and privilege to be a light in darkness and to encourage one another in their faith.

Issue Analysis

What Rights Are Protected?

In 2009, Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) worked with the Arizona Legislature to pass the Students’ Religious Liberties Act, clarifying the constitutional rights that students have in public schools. School officials may not discriminate against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.

Students do not lose their constitutional rights simply by stepping onto the public school campus. Schools must treat religious speech by students the same as non-religious speech by students. Students’ rights are not unlimited, however, due to the educational purpose of the school and the need to maintain order and discipline.

In public schools students may:

  • Share their faith. Public school students may pray, read their Bibles, discuss their faith, and engage in other religious activities during recess, lunch hour, or any other non-instructional time, as long as they are not disrupting school order.
  • Express their religious beliefs in school assignments. Students may express their religious beliefs, discuss religious figures, and draw religious artwork in school assignments without being penalized or rewarded on the basis of their religious content or viewpoint. The student’s work will be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance to the course curriculum or requirements of the assignment or coursework.

For example, a student who is asked to write a paper about an important historical figure may choose to write about Jesus Christ, and the paper must be graded based on academic standards such as grammar, punctuation, and the quality of writing. On the other hand, if a student is asked to draw a picture of a building and instead draws a picture of an angel, the student’s work is not responsive to the assignment and may be penalized.

  • Wear clothing, jewelry, or accessories that display religious messages or symbols. If the school permits students to wear clothing, jewelry, or accessories that express any kind of message, the school may not single out religious messages for unfavorable treatment. For example, if students are permitted to wear T-shirts with sports team logos, the school may not prohibit T-shirts with religious symbols or messages.
  • Distribute religious literature and fliers on campus. Students are generally free to distribute tracts or fliers during the school day, subject to reasonable restrictions (on time, place, and manner) that apply equally to religious and non-religious materials. Schools may prohibit literature distribution during class instruction.
  • Start or participate in a student Bible club on campus. In 1984, Congress passed and President Reagan signed the federal Equal Access Act. This law expanded equal access to extracurricular clubs in all public high schools.[1] In 2001, Arizona passed the CAP-supported Middle Schools Equal Access Act, which expanded equal access protections in Arizona to also include middle schools.[2] Because of these laws, if a school allows any non-curriculum clubs to meet on campus, middle school and high school students have the right to hold Bible club meetings as well. Bible club meetings must be voluntary, student-initiated, and student-led. The school, its agents, and employees may not sponsor, promote, lead, or participate in the meetings, although a school official may supervise in a non-participatory capacity. Bible clubs may require club officers to be Christian. Find out more at www.azpolicy.org.
  • Participate in “See You at the Pole” and other student-led prayer rallies and activities. Each year, students across the country gather at their school’s flagpole to participate in student-led “See You at the Pole” prayer rallies before classes begin. For more information, go to the official “See You at the Pole” website, www.syatp.com.
  • Participate in “released time” if district policy allows. Released time was started by local ministers and associations to sponsor extra-curricular religious education for students. The “released time” concept is open to all faiths, and classes can take place in nearby homes, local churches, and even outdoor parks. Released time is a privilege, not a right, and it is up to the local district to establish a policy for released time. To find out if your district allows for released time, contact your school administration directly.
  • Be involved with religious organizations using school facilities after school hours. With parental permission, students may attend events and activities put on by outside religious organizations after school hours. One example is Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Club, which meets after school for a Bible lesson, songs, Scripture memory, and review games. Once a public school allows use of its facilities by any community groups, it must allow religious groups access on the same terms.

It is also important to know that parents of children in public schools have the right to opt their child out of any curriculum that requires the student to violate the family’s religious beliefs.[3]

Deborah’s Story

If you believe it’s possible that you or your child’s religious liberty rights have been violated by a public school, stories like Deborah Chambers’ show the critical importance of speaking up. Deborah was a student at a local elementary school. In 2007, she wanted to have a picture of Jesus on her binder at school. The teacher informed her that the picture had to be put away because it was “offensive.”

In response to this clear violation of Deborah’s religious liberty rights, the legislature went on to pass and the governor signed the CAP-supported Students Religious Liberties Act, which acknowledges and protects the constitutional rights of students in public schools and charter schools to express their religious beliefs to other students, in homework and classroom assignments, and through clothing and accessories that express religious messages.

Talking Points

  • The First Amendment protects the rights of students to engage in religious expression. The CAP-supported Student Bill of Rights clarifies the U.S. Supreme Court’s application of the First Amendment in the public school context so that school officials, parents, and students can easily understand what their rights are.
  • Students should not be discriminated against for voluntary expression of faith-based viewpoints. The Constitution prohibits government officials from discriminating against religious expression on otherwise permissible subjects.
  • Schools must treat religious and non-religious speech equally. For example, if a school allows for a student to have a Phoenix Suns sticker on their folder, they must allow students to have Bible verses as well.

Conclusion

Widespread confusion about what the Constitution means for the individual faith of public school students has led to these rights being suppressed. Constitutional and statutory protections empower students to discuss their faith without having their religious message censored by school officials. Students not only have the right, but the responsibility, to freely express their faith in the classroom and on campus.

If you encounter a problem, we may be able to help! Some of the protections we currently enjoy, Arizona’s Students’ Religious Liberties Act and Middle School Equal Access Act, exist because students like Deborah did not stay silent but rather contacted us and we were able to help. If you encounter a problem exercising your religious beliefs at a public school, please call us or email legal@azpolicy.org.

© January 2014 Center for Arizona Policy, Inc. All rights reserved.
This publication includes summaries of many complex areas of law and is not specific legal advice to any person. Consult an attorney if you have questions about your specific situation or believe your legal rights have been infringed. This publication is educational in nature and should not be construed as an effort to aid or hinder any legislation.


[1] 20 U.S.C. § 4071.

[2] Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 15-720.

[3] While attending public school your child can, Alliance Defending Freedom, www.alliancedefendingfreedom.org/issues/public-education/k-thru-12 (last visited Sept. 25, 2013).