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 13. Religion and Schools


American history students have studied how the founders of this country escaped the religious persecution of a state religion and formed a new country where they could have religious freedom. The first words of the first amendment to the United States Constitution set forth the basic principles of separation of church and state and freedom, but when the United States Supreme Court declared that blessings before lunch or daily prayers in the public schools violated these basic principles, the debate began in earnest. There are times when it seems that public schools are in a no-win position. Turn one way and be accused of establishing a religion and violating the Constitution; turn another and be accused of violating a student or staff member’s right to practice a religion of his or her choice. Teach history, literature, music, even values and character, but do not teach religion. Drawing the lines required by the first amendment can have significant legal consequences and significant political and public relations consequences in the community which the school serves.

This chapter will outline the legal principles and discuss how they have been applied to the specific fact situations which have been addressed by the courts, especially by the United States Supreme Court. The state and federal statutes which address many of the issues will also be discussed. Where the board of education has options, those will be outlined; where the law seems settled, it will be stated. It is certain that cases will keep coming in the future and the debate which began right after the Constitution was drafted will continue for the foreseeable future.

13. 1 What is the legal basis for analyzing issues relating to the relationship between religion and the public schools?
13. 2 How do the courts determine whether action by a school district violates the establishment clause of the first amendment?
13. 3 When is a teacher-led prayer during the school day unconstitutional?
13. 4 Can students pray during the school day?
13. 5 Is it constitutional for student groups to engage in prayer together at school?
13. 6 What is the Equal Access Act?
13. 7 Can students distribute religious or other materials to other students during the school day?
13. 8 Can an invocation be given at football games or other extracurricular activities?
13. 9 Does it violate the Constitution for the football team to pray before the game?
13. 10 What rules apply to invocations or benedictions at graduation ceremonies?
13. 11 Can a prayer be led by a student at graduation?
13. 12 Is it constitutional to begin a board meeting with a prayer?
13. 13 Is a moment of silence constitutional and is it required in Georgia?
13. 14 Can a school curriculum include teaching about religion?
13. 15 Can a board prohibit teaching about evolution or require the teaching of creationism?
13. 15.a Can a school district teach "respect for the creator" as a part of its character education as required by state law?
13. 16 Does the failure to include religious teachings in a curriculum violate the Constitution or constitute the teaching of secular humanism?
13. 17 Under what circumstances can a school system allow for release time so that students can participate in religious instruction off campus?
13. 18 Under what circumstances can or must a student be excused from participation in some class or school activity because of religious objections?
13. 19 Can a school display a copy of the ten commandments in each classroom?
13. 20 What symbols can or must be displayed at schools or in classrooms?
13. 21 Can a school observe religious holidays such as Christmas?
13. 22 Can religious groups use the facilities of the school?
13. 23 Can nonreligious instruction be provided to students attending a religious school or institution using public monies?
13. 23.a Can public funds be paid to parents to pay or help to pay the tuition at private, religious schools as part of a State sponsored school choice program?
13. 24 Can Gideons or other religious groups distribute Bibles and/or religious materials at school or to school students?
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