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Guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools.

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bullet "Public schools can neither foster religion nor preclude it. Our public schools must treat religion with fairness and respect and vigorously protect religious expression as well as the freedom of conscience of all other students. In so doing our public schools reaffirm the First Amendment and enrich the lives of their students." Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, U.S. Department of Education, 1999.
bullet "Our first challenge in America today is simply to open our eyes to these changes, to discover America anew, and to explore the many ways in which the new immigration has changed the religious landscape of our cities and towns, our neighborhoods and schools," Diana L. Eck, "A New Religious America."

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The source of student and school board rights are contained in the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Public school teachers and administrative personnel are employees of the government and thus must act within these clauses. Unfortunately, in spite of numerous court decisions, there remains a great deal of confusion about religious activities in public schools:

bullet At one extreme, some administrators interpret the concept of separation of church and state as implying that public schools must be "religion-free zones." They believe that religion must not be taught, and that schools have full authority to ban religious garb.
bullet At the other extreme, some administrators allow prayer and other religious activities as part of their schools' classroom activities.
bullet Some restrict religious clothing and jewelry. Still others permit the attire which bears symbols of the dominant religion, Christianity, but not that of other faith groups.

In reality, public schools must:

bullet Be neutral with respect to religion:
bullet They cannot promote one religion over another.
bullet They cannot promote religion in general over a secular lifestyle.
bullet They cannot promote a secular lifestyle over religion.
bullet Allow students to pray, carry religious texts, discuss religious topics, and pass out religious materials on the school bus, at the flagpole, in the corridors outside of class time, in the cafeteria, etc., as long as their behavior is not disruptive.
bullet Allow students to wear religious jewelry and clothing with religious symbols and statements -- subject of course to safety considerations. Students do not leave their First Amendment rights at the front door of the school building.
bullet Allow students to organize a student-run religious club (e.g. a Bible study group) if as few as one secular club is permitted in the school.

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Religious Guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools -- 1995 & 1998: 

The U.S. government's Department of Education and the Justice Department created a document titled: "Guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools." On 1995-AUG, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley, sent the statement to public school superintendents throughout the U.S. He expressed his "sincere hope that these principles will help to end much of the confusion regarding religious expression in public schools and that they can provide a basis for school officials, teachers, parents and students to work together." 1

The guidelines were revised in 1998-MAY in order to reflect the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Boerne v. Flores which declared the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to be unconstitutional. "Without RFRA, the rights of students with respect to student garb and religious excusals are not as absolute. Schools now have the decide whether students can wear religious garb such as yarmulkes and head scarves to class." 2 Yarmulkes are a type of skull cap worn by many conservative Jews. The reference to head scarves probably refers to the hijab, worn by many Muslim women and girls.

Under "Student garb" the statement reads:

"Schools enjoy substantial discretion in adopting policies relating to student dress and school uniforms. Students generally have no Federal right to be exempted from religiously-neutral and generally applicable school dress rules based on their religious beliefs or practices; however, schools may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a particular religion, for prohibition or regulation. Students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages. Religious messages may not be singled out for suppression, but rather are subject to the same rules as generally apply to comparable messages." (Emphasis ours).

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2000-SEP publication "Finding Common Ground:"

Saundra Gates prepared a slide presentation under contract for the U.S. Department of Education titled: "Finding Common Ground: How Faith Communities Support Children’s Learning." 4,5 Although the document contains a disclaimer: "This report does not necessarily reflect the position of the Department of Education, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred," the report does appear on their web site and is distributed free by the Department.

Saundra's lecture notes contain a number of points that are related to the wearing of jewelry and clothing by public school students:

bullet Student prayer...: "Students have the same right to engage in individual or group prayer and religious discussion as they do to engage in other comparable activities."
bullet Official neutrality...: "Teachers, school administrators, and school volunteers...[may not] discourage religious activity because of its religious content."
bullet Student garb:
bullet "Schools enjoy substantial discretion in adopting policies relating to student dress and school uniforms."
bullet "Students generally have no Federal right to be exempted from religiously neutral and generally applicable school dress rules based on their religious beliefs."
bullet " ...schools may not single out religious attire in general or attire of a particular religion for prohibition or regulation." (emphasis ours)

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A Parents Guide:

The National Congress of Parents and Teachers, and the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center jointly published "A Parents Guide to Religion in the Public Schools." It states in section 11: "Students who must wear religious garb such as head scarves or yarmulkes should be permitted to do so in school. Students may also display religious messages on clothing to the same extent that other messages are permitted." The First Amendment Center also lists other materials on religion and the public schools of interest to teachers and administrators. 7

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What school boards can and cannot do:

It would appear that a school district's power to ban all student garb (e.g. necklace, broach, or head covering) is limited. They must remain neutral on matters of religious expression. They probably do not have the legal authority under the U.S. Constitution to:

bullet Ban the wearing a type of secular garb while allowing all comparable religious garb.
bullet Ban the wearing of a type of religious garb while allowing all corresponding secular garb.
bullet Ban the wearing of jewelry, broaches, etc of one or more religions while allowing garb from other religion(s).

However, one or more decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court would be needed to confirm this.

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  1. "Riley Sends Guidance on Religion and Schools," 1995-AUG-17, at:
  2. "The President Announces Release of Revised Religious Guidelines for America's Public Schools," 1998-MAY-29 at:
  3. Richard Riley, "Revised guidelines," 1998-MAY, at:
  4. Saundra Gates, "Finding Common Ground: How Faith Communities Support Children’s Learning." The slide presentation is at: This document can be ordered from the Education Department's Pubs Online Ordering System at: Enter the phrase common ground into the "Simple Search" box.
  5. Op. Cit., Saundra Gates, "Finding Common Ground,"  lecture notes at:
  6. "A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools" is at:
  7. "First Amendment Center Resources," at:

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Copyright © 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-AUG-30
Latest update: 2002-AUG-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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