Teachers play an invaluable role in our society and the lives of our children. There is no doubt about it. But sadly, a teacher’s role of educating, answering questions, and encouraging students is being threatened because of the persistent myth that all religion has been expelled from our schools.
Before they welcome their new students and call the first roll this year as people of faith and government employees, Liberty Institute encourages teachers to protect themselves against attacks on their religious liberty by learning about their First Amendment Rights.
1) Teacher-to-Teacher: A teacher may engage in religious expression during the workday and in public forums.
As long as their religious expression is not disruptive, is unrelated to official duties, and generally not in the presence of students, teachers may express their faith. Entering the schoolhouse gate does not require teachers to shed their First Amendment rights of freedom of religious expression and speech. If you can talk with other teachers and school officials about the movie you watched last night, then you can talk about your faith.
2) Teacher-to-Student: A teacher may discuss religion with a student, but is much more limited in doing so.
When talking with students, teachers must carefully distinguish between government and private speech. While representing the school in an official capacity, namely at school-sponsored events and in the classroom, teachers’ speech is government speech. A public school may not endorse any particular religion, nor may it favor religion or non-religion. Teachers must remain neutral.
But if a student initiates the conversation—asking a teacher about her faith, for instance—a teacher may discuss her faith with that student. If the student wants to stop the conversation, however, the teacher may not continue to discuss her religious beliefs with the student.
When not at a school function or working as a teacher, teachers’ speech is private speech, and they may discuss their faith with anyone—teacher or student—at those times.
3) An employer cannot discriminate against a teacher based on religion.
A public school may not oppose or be hostile to any religion, including discriminating against an employee for his/her religious beliefs.
Public schools may not take adverse action against teachers because of their religion, just as schools may not take adverse action against teachers because of their gender, race, or ethnicity.
For example, if teachers are in an employee-only area where they are permitted to discuss various non-religious topics, school officials may not reprimand them for discussing religion. Similarly, if teachers may wear non-religious jewelry as a school employee, they may also wear religious jewelry.
4) An employer must seek to accommodate a teacher’s religious faith.
If an employee holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with employment policy and requests an accommodation, an employer must honor that accommodation request if possible.
First, such employees must inform their employer of their belief and the conflict it presents with employment policy. Second, such employees should work with their employer toward a reasonable solution.
However, because each situation is unique, the type of accommodation available will vary from case to case. (If you are a teacher or know of one who is unsure if a public school has violated First Amendment rights, please contact Liberty Institute.)
5) A teacher is protected from harassment from co-workers and supervisors based on his or her religious beliefs.
Employers must protect employees from harassment for religious beliefs and practices in the workplace. However, the harassment must be significant and objectively considered to be abusive. Please contact Liberty Institute in order to assess whether or not the hostility of your work environment is sufficient for legal action.)
6) In general, a teacher can hold employee-only prayer groups or Bible studies on campus.
If it doesn’t interfere with class time, public schools may not discriminate against an employee activity just because it is religious. If teachers can hold non-religious meetings on campus during non-instructional time, they can also hold religious meetings on campus during non-instructional time. The school must treat non-religious and religious groups equally.
As long as it is not disruptive and employee-only, teachers can discuss and engage in religious activity just as they would discuss and engage in non-religious activity such as sports, politics, etc.
7) A teacher can participate in baccalaureate ceremonies when it is not an official school event.
As private citizens, teachers have the right to attend and participate in privately sponsored baccalaureate ceremonies. As long as teachers act in their personal capacity and not their official capacity, they have the right to attend and participate.
YOUR FREE BACK-TO-SCHOOL RESOURCES
As teachers finalize their lesson plans and put the finishing touches on their classrooms, they don’t have to fall for the myth that courts have expelled all religion from public schools.
Courts—including the U.S. Supreme Court—grant broad religious freedom in public schools. So has the U.S. Department of Education! And to help people of faith know and exercise those rights, the legal experts at Liberty Institute have created FREE, easy-to-understand back-to-school resources that teachers—and students—can