Religious clothing and jewelry:
Guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools.
||"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.
||"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
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
||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.
||At the other extreme, some administrators allow prayer and other religious
activities as part of their schools' classroom activities.
||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:
||Be neutral with respect to religion:|
||They cannot promote one religion over another.
||They cannot promote religion in general over a secular lifestyle.
||They cannot promote a secular lifestyle over religion.
||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
||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
||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.|
Religious Guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools -- 1995 &
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."
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 discretion...to 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.
"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).
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:
||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."|
||Official neutrality...: "Teachers, school administrators, and
school volunteers...[may not] discourage religious activity because of its
||"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
||" ...schools may not single out religious attire in general or attire of a particular
religion for prohibition or regulation." (emphasis ours)
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
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:
||Ban the wearing a type of secular garb while allowing all comparable
||Ban the wearing of a type of religious garb while allowing all
corresponding secular garb.
||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
"Riley Sends Guidance on Religion and Schools," 1995-AUG-17, at:
"The President Announces Release of Revised Religious Guidelines for
America's Public Schools," 1998-MAY-29 at:
Richard Riley, "Revised guidelines," 1998-MAY, at:
Saundra Gates, "Finding Common Ground: How Faith Communities Support
Children’s Learning." The slide presentation is at:
http://www.ed.gov/pubs/commonground/index.html This document can be
ordered from the Education Department's Pubs Online Ordering System at:
http://www.ed.gov/about/ordering.jsp Enter the phrase
common ground into the "Simple Search"
Op. Cit., Saundra Gates, "Finding Common Ground," lecture
"A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools" is at:
"First Amendment Center Resources," at:
Copyright © 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2002-AUG-30
Latest update: 2002-AUG-30
Author: B.A. Robinson