Freedom of Religion for Teachers and Professors

Overview

The mystery and misinformation that surrounds the so-called “separation of Church and State” has caused many teachers and professors on public campuses to be confused about their approved conduct. Public schools are required to be neutral toward religion, but that does not mean they must be hostile and exclude religion. Just as for students, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated the rule that “neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate.”[1]

Public school teachers and public college and university professors do not lose their First Amendment freedoms because of where they work. However, religious expression must be limited in certain situations due to the Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”

Teachers are public employees who represent the interests and values of the schools and government when they teach the students. Therefore, teachers must use caution not to express personal beliefs on behalf of the school.

Issue Analysis

Public School Teachers and Coaches

As a general rule, teachers are free to talk about religion in an objective manner.[2] However, when acting in their official capacities, teachers, school administrators, and other school employees are considered representatives of the state. Therefore, they should not discuss their own religious beliefs or encourage or discourage prayer or other religious activities.[3]

Teachers are treated differently from students when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of religion on the public school campus for two reasons.

  • First, as an employee of the school, a teacher’s speech and actions could be interpreted as representing the school.[4] Because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause, the school is not permitted to promote or inhibit religion, and, as a result, a teacher is not permitted to do so either.
  • Second, as authority figures, teachers who discuss their personal religious beliefs are perceived as coercing students to share those beliefs.[5] This problem is especially magnified for younger students who have difficulty discerning the difference between a teacher’s personal beliefs and what is expected of students.

Teachers are free to express their beliefs and take part in religious activities when it is clear they are not acting in their official capacities as school employees.[6] This might occur outside of campus or as part of a community group that meets on campus outside of school hours.

  • Teachers are free to meet with other teachers for prayer or Bible study before school or during lunch to the same extent that they are allowed to engage in non-religious conversation or activities.[7]
    • Teachers do need to abide by neutral rules about how they use their time – for example, if the teachers are given a free period for curriculum planning, they should not use this time to organize a Bible study.
  • Teachers may serve as faculty advisors for student religious clubs, but must take a non-participatory role – monitoring and supervising, not being actively involved.[8] Again, this is because of the concern that a teacher’s active involvement would be considered endorsement of the religious activity by the school.
    • Note that if the teacher wants to take a more active role, the group needs to be reorganized as a non-student group and request use of school facilities after hours (similar to groups like the Boy Scouts).[9] This will likely mean, however, that the group will no longer have access to school bulletin boards, announcements, and other resources that are available to student-led clubs.
  • In the classroom, teachers are permitted to teach about religion in an objective manner.[10] For example, social studies teachers will often teach about the history of the Reformation. This topic cannot be discussed without information on Catholicism and Protestantism. Arizona law specifically allows a public school district or charter school to offer an elective course for high school students on how the Bible has influenced western culture.[11] The courts have recognized that there is a “difference between teaching about religion, which is acceptable, and teaching religion, which is not.”[12] However, a teacher may not lead students in prayer or devotional Bible reading.[13]
  • Teachers are generally free to wear clothing or jewelry symbolizing their religious beliefs, as long as the clothing or jewelry is not proselytizing or disruptive.[14]
    • The case law on this issue is somewhat mixed, with one court holding that a school could validly prohibit a teacher from wearing religious garb in order to maintain a “religiously-neutral environment,”[15] but other courts disagreeing and protecting the rights of teachers to wear symbols that do not disrupt the learning environment.[16]
    • Things like a cross necklace or pin would likely be permissible, but a T-shirt proclaiming that Jesus is the only way to salvation would likely not be permitted.[17]
    • The school may also be able to prohibit religious garb that might disrupt the classroom, including certain head coverings.[18] A school could also prohibit religious clothing or jewelry through a dress code that applies equally to both religious and non-religious symbols – for example, prohibiting all jewelry.

Generally speaking, it is best for a teacher to politely decline to discuss his or her personal beliefs if a student asks.[19] Teachers or school employees may explain what being a Christian means in an objective and non-coercive manner but should not use language like, “I believe that …” Teachers also should not have a Bible or other religious texts on their desks in the classroom.[20]

University and College Professors

Professors at public universities and colleges generally have more freedom in expressing their religious beliefs than public elementary and secondary school teachers. At the college level, the courts generally recognize academic freedom of professors,[21] and, since the students are usually adults, there is reduced concern over issues like coercion and discerning what is private speech versus what is said on behalf of the public school.

A university administration must have a strong reason to interfere with a professor’s religious speech and must limit its interference to the minimum necessary to accomplish its academic goals.[22] However, professors do not have carte blanche to discuss their personal religious views at any time, particularly in the classroom.[23]

  • Professors must still make clear distinctions between expressing personal views and speaking on behalf of the university.
  • Professors must ensure that expressing their personal views does not have a coercive effect on students who may be influenced by concerns about receiving a good grade.
  • Professors should present religious beliefs objectively and should only discuss aspects of Christian faith without indicating their personal beliefs.

Unlike elementary and secondary school teachers, professors are free to participate in extracurricular religious activities outside of class. Professors may invite students to participate in an optional religious discussion, as long as the professor makes very clear that the meeting is not mandatory, is not considered part of the coursework, and is not related to grading.[24] Ideally, such a discussion should not be scheduled right before finals and should not be referred to as an “optional class” to ensure that the meeting is not considered to have official university sanction.[25]

Speech (religious or not) related to a professor’s official duties is weighed under the test that applies to First Amendment free speech rights of all public employees.[26] This test asks whether the speech is considered a matter of public concern – if it is, the speech is protected by the First Amendment. Speech in the professor’s role as a state employee (for example, in the classroom or acting as a spokesman for the school) is generally not considered a matter of public concern, whereas speech outside of the school where the professor is acting as a public citizen would be more likely considered a matter of public concern.[27] 

Notes of Caution

This document summarizes a complex area of law and is not specific legal advice for any particular situation. If you are a public school teacher or professor and you encounter a situation where you believe your constitutional rights are being violated, please seek legal advice immediately. Since the consequences could jeopardize your employment, it is best to retain an attorney to advise you specifically on how to proceed. You may be 100 percent right, but you may still lose your job and be faced with filing a lawsuit to recover your loss. Feel free to contact Center for Arizona Policy’s legal team for advice at legal@azpolicy.org or 602.424.2525.

Additionally, this information applies only to public schools and universities. A private institution is not obligated to respect the constitutional rights of its employees.

Talking Points

  • As a general rule, teachers are free to talk about religion in an objective manner. Yet when acting in their official capacity, teachers are representing the state, and should not encourage or discourage religious activity. Teachers are free to express their beliefs and take part in religious activities when it is clear they are not acting in their official capacities as school employees.
  • University administrators must have a strong reason to interfere with a professor’s religious speech. While professors don’t have the green light to discuss their personal religious views at any time, particularly in the classroom, they do have more freedom to discuss their personal views, as long as they make it clear their views do not represent the university or state.

Conclusion

Public school teachers and professors should not be intimidated or fearful of exercising their religious rights, but following these basic rules can help to avoid potential problems.

 

© 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] Tinker v. Des Moines Ind. Community Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969) (emphasis added).

[2] Bishop v. Aronov, 926 F.2d 1066, 1073 (11th Cir. 1991); Peloza v. Capistrano Unif. School Dist., 37 F.3d 517, 522 (9th Cir. 1999).

[3] U.S. Dep’t of Educ., Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools (2003), www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/religionandschools/prayer_guidance.html (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).

[4] Bishop, 926 F.2d at 1073.

[5] Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 592 (1992).

[6] Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer, supra note 3.

[7] Id.

[8] 20 U.S.C. § 4071(c)(3).

[9] Alliance Defense Fund, Knowing Your Rights: A Guide for Christian Students 19 (2006), available at http://oldsite.alliancedefensefund.org/userdocs/StudentRightsHandBook.pdf.

[10] Roberts v. Madigan, 921 F.2d 1047, 1055 (10th Cir. 1990).

[11] Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 15-717.01.

[12] Id. (emphasis in original).

[13] Sch. Dist. of Abington Township. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963); Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421(1962).

[14] Nichol v. ARIN Intermediate Unit 28, 268 F. Supp. 2d 536, 552 (W.D. Pa. 2003); James v. Bd. of Ed. of Cent. Dist. No. 1 of Towns of Addison et al., 461 F.2d 566, 572 (2d Cir. 1972); Rawlings v. Butler, 290 S.W. 2d. 801, 804 (Kent. 1956); Hysong v. Gallitzin Borough Sch. Dist., 164 Pa. 629, 657 (1894).

[15] United States v. Bd. of Educ. for Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 911 F.2d 882 (3d Cir. 1990).

[16] Nichol v. ARIN Intermediate Unit 28, 268 F. Supp. 2d 536, 552 (W.D. Pa. 2003).

[17] Downing v. West Haven Bd. of Educ., 162 F.Supp.2d 19 (D. Conn. 2001).

[18] Bd. of Educ. for Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 911 F.2d 882.

[19] Know Your Rights, supra note 9 at 18.

[20] Roberts, 921 F.2d 1047.

[21] Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of State of N. Y., 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967).

[22] Id. at 603-04.

[23] Mailloux v. Kiley, 448 F.2d 1242, 1243 (1st Cir.1971) (per curiam); Bishop v. Aronov, 926 F.2d 1066, 1073 (11th Cir. 1991).

[24] Bishop, 926 F.2d 1066, 1076.

[25] Id.

[26] Pickering v. Bd. of Ed. of Twp. High Sch. Dist. 205, Will County, Illinois, 391 U.S. 563, 568-72 (1968).

[27] Id.