Can students pray inside their public school buildings? Can teachers say “Merry Christmas” to their students? Can religious music be played in public schools?
Yes, yes and yes.
There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about what is allowed and not allowed when it comes to religious expression in public schools ever since the U.S. Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer in public schools in a landmark 1962 decision, saying that it violated the First Amendment. In fact, in 1995, then-President Bill Clinton issued a memo titled “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” that said in part:
It appears that some school officials, teachers and parents have assumed that religious expression of any type is either inappropriate, or forbidden altogether, in public schools.
As our courts have reaffirmed, however, 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 government’s schools also may not discriminate against private religious expression during the school day.
Schools are forbidden from initiating or sponsoring religious activities, including prayer, but religious groups are permitted to meet on school grounds after school, and students can pray to whatever or whomever they want at any time of day, as long as they do it privately and don’t try to force others to do the same. Religion can (and should) be a class subject — but not proselytized — in public schools, sacred music can be played in schools under certain circumstances, and schools can’t bar teachers or students from saying “Merry Christmas” to each other.
Charles C. Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center, wrote this a few years ago. It still stands.
The claim that public schools are hostile to Christians may rev up caucusgoers in Iowa, but there’s only one problem: It isn’t true.
Truth be told, students of all faiths are actually free to pray alone or in groups during the school day, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others. Of course, the right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion does not necessarily include the right to preach to a captive audience, like an assembly, or to compel other students to participate.
Visit public schools anywhere in America today and you’re likely to see kids praying around the flagpole, sharing their faith with classmates, reading scriptures in free time, forming religious clubs, and in other ways bringing God with them through the schoolhouse door each day.
As for celebrating Christmas, students are free to say “Merry Christmas,” give Christmas messages to others, and organize Christmas devotionals in student Christian clubs.
It’s true that some public school officials still misunderstand (or ignore) the First Amendment by censoring student religious expression that is protected under current law. But when challenged in court, they invariably lose.
In fact, contrary to culture-war mythology, there is more student religious speech and practice in public schools today than at any time in the past 100 years.
When politicians demonize the courts for banning God from schools, they count on public confusion about the First Amendment distinction between government speech promoting religion, which the establishment clause prohibits, and student speech promoting religion, which the free-exercise and free-speech clauses protect.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that kids can’t pray in school. What the Court has done — and continues to do — is to strike down school-sponsored prayers and devotional exercises as violations of religious liberty.
As a result of those decisions, school officials may not impose prayers, or organize prayer events, or turn the school auditorium into the local church for religious celebrations.
Students, however, aren’t the government; they can — and often do — openly pray and share their faith in public schools.
And what about religious symbols? This is from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center:
Is bringing religious symbols into public school classrooms ever OK? Many educators struggle with this question, afraid of tripping over the lines that protect our freedom of religion and separate church and state. We know the courts have interpreted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to mean that public schools cannot promote religious or antireligious beliefs, yet we know that teachers can teach about religion as long as (a) the content is tied to academic objectives and (b) teachers do not attempt to indoctrinate students to a certain religious belief or nonbelief. But does that answer the question about religious symbols?
Use symbols as instructional aids, not as permanent display or decoration.
While still contested in some areas, permanent displays of religious symbols on public school property violate current interpretations of the Establishment Clause. The Ten Commandments, for example, are unarguably religious in nature. Their permanent display in public schools communicates an endorsement for Christianity — just as hanging a Star of David in a classroom could make it appear that the school favors Judaism.
The Ten Commandments could, however, be temporarily displayed in a comparative literature classroom as an instructional aid in a lesson on the Bible as a literary source for other works. Instructional aids, in this context, are objects referenced during instruction to help students understand a particular religious heritage. Another example might be a Muslim prayer rug to illustrate the Islamic practice of Salah, or a poster about the Crusades in a history classroom depicting people holding crosses.
The question of “display” versus instructional use can be especially complex in art and music classes. Religious music and art can be included as part of classroom instruction, but it is the teacher’s responsibility to make the connection to academic content clear, to refrain from and confront any form of proselyting or denigration of the religion or the adherents of that religion, and to include art representing multiple religious and secular worldviews.
Consider the Christmas tree. The Supreme Court has held that the Christmas tree is a secular symbol of the holiday season; therefore, the display of a Christmas tree in the school lobby, temporarily, does not violate the Establishment Clause. A Hanukkah menorah has also been determined to be a secular symbol and does not violate the Establishment Clause when displayed temporarily.
Even so, public schools should exercise caution in choosing to put out these symbols. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, many students and families associate them with religions and religious holidays that not all members of the school community observe or celebrate. Their display could marginalize non-Christian and non-Jewish students and be counterproductive to the positive school climate we work to establish.