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January 11, 2018

Religious Liberty in Public Schools: You’re More Free Than You Thought

Louisiana sets out some important First Amendment guidelines for students.

The increasing secularization of American culture owes its origins, in large part, to the sterilization of religious speech, prayer and opinions in public schools. Due to legal intimidation, schools and students have been made to believe that their prayers or religious opinions are “unconstitutional.”

Yet such claims not only violate the Constitution, which ensures religious freedom, but make a mockery of the great pain and suffering by which our country came to be. The Pilgrims, at the peril of their own lives, came not in search of gold, but rather in search of religious freedom.

This month, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Congressman Mike Johnson (R-LA) made available a set of guidelines that answer 26 common questions about religious freedom in public schools. Some of the questions involve student-led prayer, religious jewelry and the religious rights of teachers and administrators. The guidelines answer such questions as, “Can students pray during lunch or recess?” “Can students wear religious clothing or jewelry?” and “Can public schools recognize Easter and Christmas?”

Clarifying some of the misunderstandings of religious expression rights, the guidelines show that students can pray during non-instructional time, such as before school or during lunch. Teachers can also pray during these non-instructional times and are free to discuss religion with students, outside of class, to the same extent that they would discuss any other concept, topic or idea. The key factor here is that the prayers and religious discussions take place during “non-instructional time.”

Additionally, students are permitted to wear religious clothing, jewelry and symbols (such as a rosary) because these items are considered an exercise of private (and protected) speech. The guidelines state: “Because schools are prohibited from discriminating against religious expression … a school may not regulate religious items or clothing any differently than it does other student clothing.”

Unfortunately, many public schools have stopped celebrating Christmas and Easter for fear of legal issues. However, the guidelines reveal that a public school can have Christmas and Easter music, art and dramatic performances if the intention is to teach students culture and history, rather than to single out, proselytize or promote a religion.

Other important facts mentioned in the guidelines include the following:

  • Students can freely share their faith with others and distribute religious materials on the same basis as non-religious materials.
  • Truly student-led, student-initiated prayers and private religious expression must be allowed at graduation ceremonies, and students may include religious content in their speeches.
  • Students can participate in religious clubs on the same basis as other clubs.
  • Schools cannot treat religious speech or activities differently than other activities.

Congressman Johnson and Attorney General Landry plan to send these guidelines to all school superintendents in Louisiana, so that their public school leadership can understand the religious rights of both the students and administrators. Attorney General Landry states, “Many people have unfortunately been misled into believing schools must be religion-free zones. The truth is our First Amendment rights are not surrendered at the schoolhouse door.”

In fact, the first sentence of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution clearly states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As Johnson states, “Religious liberty is the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights and the next generation of Americans needs to be encouraged to preserve it.”

Louisiana’s set of guidelines will not only educate Louisiana schools about the religious rights of their students, but will hopefully serve as a model for other states desiring to understand the constitutionally protected religious rights of their students, teachers and administrators.

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