America is at the point where student graduation speakers are often censored from including religious content in their speeches. It’s not uncommon to hear about schools discriminating against religious clubs because of their faith-based nature or restricting student religious expression.
And this pattern is not limited to violations of students’ religious liberty. First Liberty client Joe Kennedy was fired from his job as a high school football coach over his personal prayers after football games. We recently defended Coach Kennedy’s right to pray in federal court and are awaiting the decision.
Many people wonder how this could be happening in America. And how can we turn the tide and create a culture of religious freedom in America’s public schools?
One of the most important ways we can preserve religious freedom is to know our rights, exercise them, and protect them when challenged.
Young Americans need to be aware of their rights and stand strong when those rights are threatened. Below are 4 facts every student should know about religious liberty:
1. Kids do have religious liberty rights while in school.
In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the Supreme Court confirmed that public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Religious clubs, reading and studying religious texts, and student prayer are allowed in school environments, subject to a few guidelines. Students can also use religious texts for personal use or schoolwork whenever appropriate to the assignment or situation.
2. Public schools may not discriminate against religious expression.
Schools may not discriminate against or show hostility toward faith. To that end, public schools cannot restrict religious speech unless they also restrict nonreligious speech, and they must treat religious speech and similar nonreligious speech equally.
In contrast, students are free to hold and express their religious viewpoints as long as that expression takes place in an appropriate setting. For example, students are not free to share their religious viewpoints during a test when talking is prohibited or during the teacher’s math lesson. But when a student is invited to discuss a topic to which the student’s religious viewpoint is relevant or at times when students are free to discuss any topics of their choice, then students are free to share their religious views.
3. Student-initiated and student-led prayer or other religious expression (for example, “Tebowing”) is allowed to the same extent that non-religious expression is allowed.
While at extracurricular events, kids who voluntarily decide to pray or otherwise express faith without any involvement by school employees are free to do so to the same extent that other speech or expression is allowed.
In addition, student speakers may pray or include religious content in their remarks at extracurricular events if the speech meets certain guidelines. This content is allowed if:
4. Kids can incorporate their faith in their schoolwork as long as the circumstance is appropriate.
As mentioned above, students are free to express their faith in their schoolwork as long as that expression of faith is appropriate to the assignment.
For example, when sixth-grader Mackenzie Fraiser and the rest of her class were assigned to compose presentations titled “All About Me,” Mackenzie wanted to include a Bible verse, as the presentation was supposed to include a slide with an “inspirational saying” important to her identity. However, the class was told that they could not use Bible verses on this slide.
But after First Liberty sent a letter to the school that explained the law and U.S. Department of Education guidelines, the school apologized to Mackenzie and allowed her to resubmit her project with her favorite Bible verse included.
It takes commitment, courage, and persistence to preserve our religious freedom rights. However, as Mackenzie’s story shows, when students and their parents take a stand, religious freedom can win.
Make sure the students in your life know these facts so that they are empowered to protect their religious freedom. Don’t let our religious freedom slip away!
For more information on religious liberty in the public schools, download First Liberty’s free Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Students and Teachers.
News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.
Dear Coach Kennedy,
I would like to say thank you. Your dedication to your faith and your commitment to the positive education of our youth is truly admirable. I am deeply grateful for your military service and for taking a courageous stance in protecting religious liberty rights for teachers and administrators.
If our First Amendment protects a player’s right to kneel in protest, it certainly protects your right to kneel in prayer.
I was shocked to learn that Bremerton High School suspended you after denying your request to continue your wholesome practice of giving thanks after football games.
The Bremerton School District’s actions violate the law and send the wrong message to coaches, young people, our communities, and our nation — a message of hostility to religious freedom and intolerance toward personal religious expression.
Please know that you are not alone in this difficult time — I support you and First Liberty as you continue to fight for religious freedom! Our schools need more coaches like you, our country needs more citizens like you, and our world needs more people like you.✖