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Religiously mandated practices for students are protected by the First Amendment, which upholds the right to freedom of religion. The First Amendment guarantees such religious rights as the right to wear religiously mandated clothing and observe religiously mandated dietary rules. It also guarantees the right of a student to engage in personal worship or prayer, so long as it is student initiated and does not disrupt classroom instruction. The Department of Education in a recent policy brief titled “Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools,” explains the commitment of the federal government to this issue in the Introduction: “Section 8524(a) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act and codified at 20 U.S.C. § 7904(a), requires the Secretary to issue guidance to State educational agencies (SEAs), local educational agencies (LEAs), and the public on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. In addition, section 8524(b) requires that, as a condition of receiving ESEA funds, an LEA must certify in writing to its SEA that it has no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools as detailed in this updated guidance.”
The Department of Education’s Guidance under Prayer During Non-instructional Time states that: “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.”
This right is also supported by the First Amendment Center in its 2008 publication, A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools where it answers the question “May public schools accommodate students with special religious needs?” with the response: “Public schools are sometimes asked to accommodate students with special religious needs or practices. Sensitive and thoughtful school officials may easily grant many of these requests without raising constitutional questions. Muslim students, for example, may need a quiet place at lunch or during breaks to fulfill their prayer obligation during the school day. Jehovah’s Witnesses ask for their children to be excused from birthday celebrations. As long as honoring these requests is feasible, school officials should do so in the spirit of the First Amendment.” (p. 8)
The Equal Access Act of 1984 further affirms the rights of students to initiate and participate in religious activities, such as religious clubs or even prayer services, as long as they are initiated and led by students. The Department of Education’s Guidance under Organized Prayer Groups and Activities clarifies that: “Students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs, and ‘see you at the pole’ gatherings before school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other noncurricular student activities groups. Such groups must be given the same access to school facilities for assembling as is given to other noncurricular groups, without discrimination because of the religious perspective of their expression. School authorities possess substantial discretion concerning whether to permit the use of school media for student advertising or announcements regarding noncurricular activities. However, where student groups that meet for nonreligious activities are permitted to advertise or announce their meetings—for example, by advertising in a student newspaper, making announcements on a student activities bulletin board or public address system, or handing out leaflets—school authorities may not discriminate against groups who meet to engage in religious expression such as prayer. School authorities may disclaim sponsorship of noncurricular groups and events, provided they administer such disclaimers in a manner that neither favors nor disfavors groups that meet to engage in prayer or express religious perspectives.”
Students also have the right to inform others about their religion, subject to restrictions that the school may impose, the right to attend Friday prayers, and the right to be excused from school for religious holidays. On the last point, the Department of Education’s Guidance under Accommodation of Prayer During Instructional Time states that: “Schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided that schools do not encourage or discourage participation in such instruction or penalize students for attending or not attending. Similarly, schools may excuse students from class to remove a significant burden on their religious exercise, including prayer, where doing so would not impose material burdens on other students. For example, it would be lawful for schools to excuse Muslim students from class to enable them to fulfill their religious obligations to pray during Ramadan.”
The Department of Education’s Guidance summarizes the rights of students vs. the rights of school staff or officials under Overview of Governing Constitutional Principles: “Although the Constitution forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer in their official capacities, students and teachers do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’ The Supreme Court has made clear that ‘private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression.’ Moreover, not all religious speech that takes place in the public schools or at school-sponsored events is governmental speech. For example, ‘nothing in the Constitution . . . prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday,’ and students may pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other conversation or speech. Students may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics.”
The Department of Education provides this comprehensive PowerPoint on these and other related issues.