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The myth that "God has been thrown out of public schools" is not only factually inaccurate, it is often carelessly asserted in a way that harms the public's understanding of the appropriate and constitutional role of religion in the public schools. The First Amendment's religion clauses provide a sensible guide for determining the proper scope of religion in the public schools. Achieving the right balance between the two clauses (no establishment and free exercise of religion) in public schools is a crucial goal for an institution that is charged with serving all Americans.

In general, the public schools must refrain from sponsoring religious exercises or otherwise promoting religion.  But they should accommodate the rights of students to practice their religion in ways that do not disrupt the education process or interfere with the rights of other students not to participate.  Voluntary, student-initiated prayer, for example, should ordinarily be permitted, but school sponsored prayer should not be allowed.  Public schools may "teach about religion" in history, social studies, comparative religion, and Bible as literature courses.  But school officials should not "teach religion" in ways that would proselytize or promote a religious point of view.

A good starting point for analysis of religion in the public schools, is the quote by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in Board of Education v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990): "There is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect." In Mergens, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act that ensures student initiated religious clubs can meet on the same terms as other non-curricular clubs. The  U. S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Establishment Clause, however, to prohibit school-sponsored religious exercises at graduation and other school events. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992): Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000)

The focus of much of the current debate and developing case law on school prayer is directed toward defining the proper contours of student-initiated religious speech and exercise. "Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools," issued by the United States Department of Education, addresses the issue in the context of school assemblies, athletic events, and graduation.  It provides that where students are selected on neutral criteria and retain "primary control" over what they say, that expression will not be attributed to the school and, therefore, cannot be restricted because of its religious content.  The guidelines go on to suggest that, in order to avoid misunderstandings, school officials may make "appropriate disclaimers" to clarify that the speech is the student's and not the school's. Previously issued Department of Education Guidelines should also be consulted.

Religious freedom is a fundamental right of students in public schools, and that freedom depends on the neutrality of public school officials and careful application of  First Amendment principles. 

Articles | Texas textbook decisions have national implications
Resources | Bible Literacy Project: The Bible and Its Influence
Resources | Public Schools & Religious Communities
Resources | A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools
Resources | A Shared Vision: Religious Liberty in the 21st Century
Resources | A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools
Articles | Graduation prayers should not do indirectly what is prohibited directly
Articles | Bible curriculum in the public schools
Articles | Religion vs. Evolution: A false dichotomy
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Articles | New guidelines offer unbalanced view of religion in public schools
Resources | Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools
Resources | Department of Education: Guidelines on Religious Expression in the Public Schools
Resources | RELIGION IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS: A Joint Statement of Current Law
 
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President Obama: Religious Hatred Has No Place in Society
At the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast today, President Obama discussed the recent tragic shootings at a Jewish Synagogue and Community Center in Kansas City. Here is an excerpt from his remarks: That this occurred now -- as Jews were preparing to celebrate Passover, as Christian...