Christian Students’ Rights in Public Schools

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1. May a student use a pencil or notebook with a Christian slogan or Bible verse printed on it?

Yes! Forbidding use of such items would violate the rights of free speech and religious expression of public school children.

The school may only impose reasonable regulations for maintaining order in the classroom. Using a pencil or notebook with a Christian slogan cannot in any way materially or substantially detract from classroom order. Forbidding use of such items would be a violation of the Constitutional right allowing symbolic speech.

2. May a student wear a tee-shirt or button with a religious slogan, Bible verse, or anti-abortion message printed on it?

Yes! Christian students may display religious messages on clothing to the same extent as other students are permitted to display comparable messages.

Shirts with printed messages are forms of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment. Courts have only allowed suppression of symbolic speech in public schools if it were lewd or obscene, Broussard v. Sch. Brd. of City of Norfolk (E.D. Va. 1992), or if the clothing had slogans advertising alcoholic beverages, McIntire v. Berel Sch., 804 F. Supp. 1415 (W.D. Okia. 1992).

3. May a student give out Gospel tracts or religious literature to his classmates?

Yes! Students may distribute religious tracts or literature to their schoolmates in the same manner as they would be permitted to distribute non-religious material. Schools may impose reasonable restrictions on the place and manner for distribution of all printed material, but religious literature may not be singled out for special restrictions or regulations. If the Boy Scouts or community sports team may distribute material promoting out-of-school programs, distribution of similar religious material must also be permitted.

First Amendment rights include the right to distribute Gospel tracts or other religious literature during non-instructional times. The standard that must be applied is: Does the activity materially or substantially disrupt school discipline?

The school must prove that such disruption actually occurs. “[U]ndifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” Tinker at 508. When a student peacefully distributes tracts or other religious literature on school grounds during non-instructional time there is nothing that “might reasonably [lead] school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.” Tinker at 514.

4. May a student witness to his classmates about Jesus or pray with other students on the school campus?

Yes! School officials may not prevent students from gathering for such activities before or after school, at lunch, or during other times when students are permitted to interact with other students. Students may pray together in informal settings and may discuss their religious views with each other, subject only to the same rules of order which apply to all other student conduct and speech. Students may attempt to persuade their peers about religious and political topics, including religion and abortion, so long as such speech does not constitute harassment aimed at a particular student or group of students.

Any restrictions imposed upon student interaction must be reasonable restrictions relating to the time, place, and manner of all student behaviors, not just religious behavior. During any time in which a student is free to discuss non-instructional topics, he is free to discuss religious topics, and such freedom of speech includes the freedom to witness or to pray.

5. May a student say 'Grace' before eating his lunch?

Yes! Freedom of speech includes the freedom to pray. Students may bow their heads to pray before tests.

6. May a student read the Bible during the school day?

Yes! Any time that students are allowed to read non-instructional books, Bible reading must be permitted. This would include the hours before and after school or during lunch. It would also include study halls or any free reading hours during class time when teachers permit students to read books of their choice.

7. May students organize Bible clubs in public school?

Yes! Public secondary schools must allow Bible clubs the same privileges as any other school club. Meetings may include prayer, Bible reading, and worship. Bible clubs must also be allowed to promote their activities through school newspapers, public address systems, and bulletin boards on the same basis as other clubs. The school must provide a room and resources for the Bible clubs. The only difference the Court allowed between bible clubs and other clubs is that the faculty sponsor may not control the Bible club. The faculty sponsor must merely ensure that the club follows school policies, since any official control by the faculty members of religious activities of the club could be an establishment of religion. The club must be student-led, and students may occasionally invite outside community religious leaders to speak.

8. May students write book reports or English themes or do oral assignments based on religious subjects?

Yes! Students may express their religious beliefs in homework, artwork, or any other written or oral assignment. Such home and classroom work must be judged by teachers using ordinary academic standards, and religious topics may not be discriminated against or singled out for special restrictions. This would include the right to present a religious topic in a show-and-tell exercise as well as in a book report or speech assignment to be delivered to the class. It would not be unconstitutional for a teacher to allow students to share their personal religious viewpoints in the classroom at appropriate times or in appropriate assignments. The teacher may constitutionally permit religious students to share their views if the views of all other students are also allowed.

9. May Christian students be excused from participation in activities they find objectionable?

Yes! If a particular lesson or activity would substantially burden a student’s free exercise of religion, and if the school cannot prove a compelling interest in requiring attendance, the school is legally required to excuse the student from that lesson or activity.

10. May student graduation speakers mention their Christian faith and/or read from the Bible?

Yes! If students such as valedictorians or salutatorians are allowed to compose their own speeches, the speeches may only be censored for lewd or obscene speech. A governmental body, such as a school, may not censor the speech of private individuals merely because that speech contains a religious perspective.

Courts have upheld the right of a majority of students to act on their own to incorporate prayer into the graduation exercises if it is student-led and the content is not controlled by school officials. Jones v. Clear Creek Ind. Sc. Dist., 977 F.2d 963 (5th Cir. 1992) (]ones II).

11. May baccalaureate services still be held?

Yes! Baccalaureate services may still be held if they are sponsored by a private group rather than by the school. These private baccalaureate services may be held in school facilities if those facilities are generally open to use by other private groups.

12. May public schools teach about religion?

Yes! While public schools may not directly provide religious instruction on the school campus, school officials have substantial discretion to dismiss students to participate in off-premises religious instruction provided that they do not encourage or discourage participation and do not penalize students who choose not to participate. Additionally, public schools may teach about religion, including material about the Bible and other religious material, the history of religion, comparative religion, Biblical literature, and the role of religion in American history and in the history of other countries.

While schools must express neutrality toward particular religions, teachers may also actively teach civil values and virtue, as well as the moral codes which hold communities together, even if these values are also those held by particular religious groups. Public schools may also teach about religious holidays, including their religious aspects. Schools may not, however, observe religious holidays except with respect to secular aspects of those holidays.