Aug 23, 2021

As students and educators across the country head back to school during the pandemic, worrying about students’ religious freedom rights should be the last thing on parents’ minds. But despite the U.S. Supreme Court striking down school-sponsored prayer six decades ago, Americans United for Separation of Church and State fields hundreds of reports from children, parents and educators about religious freedom violations in public schools every year.

That’s why Americans United today issued three “Know Your Rights” guides for public school students, parents and teachers so everyone knows and understands their religious freedom rights and responsibilities in public schools.

“Religious freedom and public education are two essential ingredients to building a strong democracy where we can come together as equals,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “It has been Americans United’s mission for the past 75 years to protect both of these cherished values, and our new ‘Know Your Rights’ guides advance that goal. Public schools are the building blocks of our diverse society, and we are committed to ensuring they are welcoming, inclusive spaces where all children are treated equally and are free to believe as they choose.”

Written to address some of the most common religious freedom violations in public schools that are reported to Americans United, the “Know Your Rights” pamphlets offer comprehensive guidance, including:

  • Public schools cannot conduct, sponsor or endorse prayer. Individual students can pray in their free time at school as long as they don’t disrupt classroom instruction or proselytize.
  • Teachers have similar rights to be free of religious coercion at work and to engage in personal religious activity when they are not in view of impressionable students.
  • Public schools may teach objective information about religion, such as the role of religion in history or culture. But educators must not preach that a particular religion is true (or false), nor may they encourage students to practice a particular religion.
  • Neither public schools nor their employees are allowed to put up religious displays such as crosses, Bible verses, the Ten Commandments or pictures of religious figures.
  • Public schools cannot hold classes or activities in houses of worship unless all the religious symbols are covered and not visible.
  • Public schools cannot allow people to come onto school property during the school day or during any school-sponsored activity to communicate religious messages to students or staff.
  • Public schools may close for religious holidays only if they have a nonreligious reason for doing so – such as there would be a high absentee rate during the holiday.

Americans United Staff Attorney Ian Smith was the primary author of the “Know Your Rights” guides. As AU’s point person for reviewing and responding to reports of church-state separation violations at all levels of government, Smith knows the vast majority of complaints involve public schools.

“It is our hope that these ‘Know Your Rights’ pamphlets will help public schools protect religious freedom, and help students, parents and teachers recognize when a violation has occurred so they can advocate for their own rights or get help from Americans United,” Smith said. “If these guides prevent even one child from experiencing religious coercion or discrimination, they’ll be well worth the effort.”

The “Know Your Rights” guides are available at www.au.org/knowyourrights.

Potential violations of religious freedom can be reported to Americans United at www.au.org/get-involved/report-a-violation/form.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.