The First Amendment guarantees the right to young people and others to freely express their thoughts on matters of government, politics, and religion.
Oaths, Prayer, and Religious Instruction for Students
Do we have to say the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the flag?
No. The courts say that students have the right to sit silently during the flag salute and Pledge of Allegiance.
Can teachers, coaches, and school officials lead students in prayers or other religious exercises in school?
Not at a public school. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school prayers and Bible readings in public schools (and during school-sponsored activities, including sporting events) are unconstitutional because they are a form of religious coercion for students. "Official" prayers and Bible reading are not allowed even if they are supposedly nondenominational or voluntary.
In a class, you may study different prayers and religious books if they are part of a course such as History or Literature, and do not promote any particular religion.
But certainly, you individually are free to pray at school. And you are also free to pray with friends and others—that's your First Amendment right to freely exercise your religion.
What about prayers or religious mentions at our graduation or other school ceremonies?
It's a little complicated. School authorities, a student, or a religious leader cannot lead the people assembled for the event in prayer, and cannot deliver an official prayer. This includes graduation ceremonies and extracurricular school activities, such as sporting events.
So if there’s supposed to be a separation of church and state, how are schools allowed to hold baccalaureates?
Baccalaureates—special ceremonies held usually a day or week or so before the actual graduation ceremonies—were indeed once sponsored by schools, but in recent years, because of concerns about separation of church and state (at public schools, which are government-owned), baccalaureates these days now must be organized and funded by private organizations.
The school may make its facilities available for a baccalaureate service only if the facilities are offered on an equal basis for non-religious activities of a similar nature.
What about a moment of silence?
It depends on the purpose of the moment of silence. It also depends on how it is carried out. If the purpose or effect is to promote religion then it is probably against the law. On the other hand, if the purpose has nothing to do with religion—for example, to remember someone who has died or to think about world peace—then it is probably okay.
Can the school sponsor Christmas programs or other types of religious pageants or displays?
A public school (again, the rules for private schools are different since they are not funded by the government) may not display religious symbols or Nativity scenes on school property. Sometimes, however, it's not clear whether an exhibit clearly sends a religious message.
Ames High School experienced a controversy because it received a free evergreen tree in December, which was decorated with a sports theme and called a "winter tree." People complained, and school officials removed the tree.
How about singing religious songs?
Schools are allowed to instruct students to sing religious music because it makes up such a large part of music history. However, schools can go too far by making too much of the music religious. It's a matter of degree.
If you feel your school focuses too much on religious music, click here.
Can student groups hold religious meetings on school property?
Yes. Christian and other religious groups have the same rights as any other student group. The two rules are:
- The meetings are student-initiated.
- School staff may not promote religious clubs (although they may be present to ensure order and to serve as neutral faculty advisors.)
Can students hand out religious materials in school?
Yes. Students can distribute religious materials as long as the students are given the same rules and treatment as other non-religious written materials—no better, no worse.