“Far from being settled by the interpretations of judges and historians, the last word on the First Amendment likely rests in a chapter yet to be written, documenting the unfolding drama of America. If religious liberty is neglected, all civil liberties will suffer. If it is guarded and sustained, the American experiment will be the more secure.”
Signed in 1988 by over 100 civic and religious leaders, the Williamsburg Charter celebrates and reaffirms the Religious Liberty Clauses of the First Amendments and calls on next generations to fulfill their duty to uphold these vital freedoms.
The Charter outlines the “3Rs” of religious freedom: Rights, Responsibility, and Respect.
Download the Williamsburg Charter
The First Amendment Center, forerunner to the current Religious Freedom Center, has brought together dozens of national organizations to draft and endorse consensus documents providing guidance about religion in public schools.
Teachers encounter religion across the curriculum, through the experiences and identities of their students, and in their own personal lives. Navigating each of these domains can be tricky and confusing. This guide provides information on (1) Teaching about Religion in Public Schools, (2) The Personal Beliefs of Teachers, and (3) Religious Expression of Students.
Answers to Select Questions:
May I pray or otherwise practice my faith at school?
“As employees of the government, public-school teachers are subject to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and thus required to be neutral concerning religion while carrying out their duties as teachers. That means, for example, that teachers do not have the right to pray with or in the presence of students during the school day. Outside of their school responsibilities, public-school teachers are free like other citizens to teach or otherwise participate in their local religious community. But teachers must refrain from using their position in the public school to promote their outside religious activities.
Teachers, of course, bring their faith with them through the schoolhouse door each morning. Because of the First Amendment, however, teachers who wish to pray or engage in other religious activities—unless they are silent— should do so outside the presence of students.”
How do I respond if students ask about my religious beliefs?
“Some teachers prefer not to answer the question, stating that it is inappropriate for a teacher to inject personal beliefs into the discussion. Other teachers may choose to answer the question straightforwardly and succinctly in the interest of an open and honest classroom environment.”
For more details on these questions, see pages 17-18 of the Teacher’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools.
Students’ rights are also protected under the First Amendment, including the right to pray individually or in groups, to wear religious garb or symbols, to read religious literature, and to form religious clubs. Answers to some of the most common questions are below. Additional details can be found in the linked resources and in many of the resources in the other sections of this toolkit.
Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools (U.S. Department of Education)
Download: A Parent’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools (Religious Freedom Center)
Download: Harassment, Bullying, and Free Expression: Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools (Religious Freedom Center)
Answers to Select Questions
May students express their faith while in school?
“Generally, individual students are free to pray, read their scriptures, discuss their faith, and invite others to join their particular religious group. Only if a student’s behavior is disruptive or coercive should it be prohibited. No student should be allowed to harass or pressure others in a public school setting.” (more from A Parent’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools)
“Students may pray when not engaged in school activities or instruction, subject to the same rules designed to prevent material disruption of the educational program that are applied to other privately initiated expressive activities. Among other things, students may read their Bibles, Torahs, Korans, or other scriptures; say grace before meals; and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other non-instructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities. While school authorities may impose rules of order and pedagogical restrictions on student activities, they may not discriminate against student prayer or religious perspectives in applying such rules and restrictions.” (see more from Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools)
May students express religious beliefs in school assignments?
“Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious perspective of their submissions. Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school. Thus, if a teacher’s assignment involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer (for example, a psalm) should be judged on the basis of academic standards (such as literary quality) and neither penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious perspective.” (from Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools)
May students be excused from parts of the curriculum for religious reasons?
“Whenever possible, school officials should try to accommodate the requests of parents and students for excusal from classroom discussions or activities for religious reasons. If focused on a specific discussion, assignment, or activity, such a request should be routinely granted in order to strike a balance between the student’s religious freedom and the school’s interest in providing a well-rounded education.” (see more from A Parent’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools)
Including policies regarding religious expression, religious holidays, and the academic study of religion in your district’s policies and procedures can often prevent conflict or controversy. All faculty and staff should have access to these policies and be made aware of the guidelines.
Several sample district policies can be found in chapter 15 (p. 171-224) of Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion in Public Schools. Excerpts from one sample are found below:
Davis County Public School District (Utah)
Selections from: 11IR-107 Recognizing Constitutional Freedoms in Public Schools (revised May 2018)
1. PURPOSE AND PHILOSOPHY
The Board of Education of the Davis School District (Board) promotes mutual understanding and respect for the interests and rights of all individuals regarding their beliefs, values, and customs. Specifically, it is the Board’s purpose to have a policy that:
1.1. Fosters knowledge and understanding about, and sensitivity toward, religious differences and the role of religion in a diverse, contemporary society;
1.2. Allows student and employee religious expression and freedom of speech within the parameters of existing state and federal law;
1.3. Supports a climate of academic freedom in which religious ideas and organizations can be discussed in an objective way, for their educational value, with emphasis on the impact of religions on history, literature, art, music, morality, and other key social
1.4. Requires official neutrality on the part of teachers, administrators, other school employees, and volunteers regarding religious activity when acting in their official capacities;
1.5. Promotes constructive dialogue between schools and community regarding religion; and
1.6. Encourages educators and all members of the school community to engage in persistent efforts to eliminate prejudice, build trust, work toward consensus, and resolve disputes over religious issues in schools promptly, equitably, sensitively, and with civility at the local level.
3. STUDENT EXPRESSION OF PERSONAL RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OR VIEWS
3.1. Non-discrimination: Schools may not forbid students acting on their own from expressing their personal religious views or beliefs solely because they are of a religious nature. Schools may not discriminate against private religious expression by students, but must instead give students the same right to engage in religious activity and discussion as they have to engage in other comparable activity.
3.3. Least restrictive means: If an individual can show that his or her actions are motivated by a sincere religious belief and have been substantially burdened by school officials or the District, school officials can still regulate the conduct if they have a compelling interest and pursue such interest in the manner least restrictive of the individual’s beliefs.
3.6. Student religious expression during instructional time: Students participating in school sponsored learning activities, provided and directed by school employees acting in their official capacities, shall not be prohibited from expressing personal religious beliefs or be penalized for so doing, unless the expression unreasonably interferes with the ability of school officials to maintain order and discipline, violates school rules, impinges on the rights of others, unreasonably endangers persons or property, creates a coercive atmosphere, or violates concepts of civility or propriety appropriate to the school setting.
5. MOMENT OF SILENCE IN CLASSROOMS
5.1. In accordance with Utah law, teachers may provide for the observance of a period of silence in the classroom each school day. However, teachers and other school officials must maintain official neutrality by neither encouraging nor discouraging prayer nor other religious exercise during the moment of silence.
8. EMPLOYEE EXPRESSION OF PERSONAL RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
8.1. Official neutrality: All employees of the District must maintain strict neutrality when acting in their official capacities. An employee’s rights relating to voluntary religious practices and freedom of speech do not include proselytizing of any student regarding atheistic, agnostic, sectarian, religious, or denominational doctrine while the employee is acting in the employee’s official capacity, nor may an employee attempt to use his or her position to influence a student regarding the student’s religious beliefs or lack thereof.
12. RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS
12.1. No celebration: Religious and civic holiday such as Easter, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan, offer opportunities to teach about a variety of religious traditions and beliefs of conscience during the school year. While teachers and school officials may teach about religious holidays, they may not celebrate such holidays in school.
12.2. Christmas: Because Christmas is a holiday that may cause particularly strong concerns among some students and members of the community, teachers and school officials should be especially mindful of and sensitive to the beliefs of all students during this season. At Christmas the schools should emphasize the positive values of that season values such as peace, goodwill, kindness, unselfishness, giving, and brotherhood are appropriate for recognition at the time, as at any time in the year. During the Christmas season, teachers are encouraged to include discussions or presentations about other religious or cultural winter holidays coinciding with Christmas, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
12.3. Other holidays: Activities and discussions related to cultural holidays such as Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Halloween should be academic in nature. Because these holidays may be viewed by some parents as having religious connotations, requests for excusal in school activities associated with these holidays should be routinely granted.
12.4. Parties: Class parties associated with seasonal holidays are appropriate insofar as they are consistent with the approved curriculum. However, consistent with the District’s goal of maximizing instructional time, such parties must not unduly interfere with regular academic activities.
14. WAIVERS OF PARTICIPATION
14.1. Rights of individuals: While the District acknowledges its obligation to be sensitive and fair toward the personal rights and beliefs of all individuals, merely exposing students to ideas that may offend the religion does not amount to a substantial burden on their religious exercise. Furthermore, it is unconstitutional to allow one person’s or one group’s religion to determine the curriculum for all others. Consequently, it is District policy to accommodate the legitimate objections of individuals by granting waivers of participation when requested or when no other reasonable alternative is possible.
Inviting guests to speak in your classroom can be a very engaging experience for students. Guests can provide first-hand perspectives and respond to student questions that might not be found in traditional classroom materials. However, you also want to ensure that all guests remain within First Amendment guidelines and understand their role in the class. Before inviting someone to speak in your classroom, consider the questions below:
The Utah 3Rs Speakers Bureau can support you in finding speakers for your class who are well-versed in the 3Rs framework.
There are arguments both for and against taking students on field trips to religious sites, such as houses of worship. You should decide what is right for your students and your context.
If you do decide to go on a field trip, you might want to consider some of the following:
The question of how to treat religious holidays in the classroom can be confusing and contentious. Attention to the legal guidelines and educational objectives should guide decisions about religious holidays in your school. The sample school district policies in the previous section can also provide a model on which to base your own school’s policies.
The following questions and answers come from Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers (from the Religious Freedom Center), and additional information can be found in the full publication.
Teachers must be alert to the distinction between teaching about religious holidays, which is permissible, and celebrating religious holidays, which is not. Recognition of and information about holidays may focus on how and when they are celebrated, their origins, histories and generally agreed-upon meanings. If the approach is objective and sensitive, neither promoting nor inhibiting religion, this study can foster understanding and mutual respect for differences in belief. Teachers will want to avoid asking students to explain their beliefs and customs. An offer to do so should be treated with courtesy and accepted or rejected depending on the educational relevancy. Teachers may not use the study of religious holidays as an opportunity to proselytize or to inject personal religious beliefs into the discussion. Teachers should avoid this by teaching through attribution, i.e. by reporting that ‘some Buddhists believe ….'”
Decisions about what to do in December should begin with the understanding that public schools may not sponsor religious devotions or celebrations; study about religious holidays does not extend to religious worship or practice. Does this mean that all seasonal activities must be banned from the schools? Probably not, and in any event, such an effort would be unrealistic. The resolution would seem to lie in devising holiday programs that serve an educational purpose for all students—programs that do not make students feel excluded or identified with a religion not their own. Holiday concerts in December may appropriately include music
related to Christmas and Hanukkah, but religious music should not dominate. Any dramatic productions should emphasize the cultural aspects of the holidays. Nativity pageants or plays portraying the Hanukkah miracle are not appropriate in the public school setting. In short, while they may recognize the holiday season, none of December’s school activities should have the purpose, or effect, of promoting or inhibiting religion.”
Sensitive school policy on absences will take account of the religious needs and requirements of students. Students should be allowed a reasonable number of excused absences, without penalties, to observe religious holidays within their traditions. Students may be asked to complete makeup assignments or examinations in conjunction with such absences.”
Learn more about how to promote the 3Rs — rights, responsibility, respect — in your school and community.