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Your Child’s Rights at School

Last night my 10-year-old really shocked me. While writing a homework essay he remarked that of course he could not mention God in the essay because if he did, he would be expelled. I asked him who had told him such an outrageously untrue thing and he just shrugged and said, “Everyone knows that.”

There is confusion at every level about faith in the public schools. Last Christmas a secretary at my son’s school tried to eject a parent from the lobby because he was wearing a Santa hat. She only stopped when a co-worker asked if she also planned to take the menorah out of the school library and the kwanza wheat off the hallway wall. At that point, she just didn’t know what to do. I shouldn’t be surprised that my son is hearing mixed messages about mentioning God at school.

For the record, your child has a government-protected right to express his faith in Christ in the public school. The rights described below were drafted by the Department of Education and can be found in a government publication called The United States Department of Education Guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools.

Your child may pray individually or in a group. Have you heard that prayer has been banned from the public schools? The only type of prayer that is prohibited is prayer that appears to be school-sponsored or a required part of the curriculum or school day. This means that teachers and administrators can’t lead students in prayer, but students themselves have the same right to pray as they do to engage in other nondisruptive activities that are not part of the curriculum. Students can pray before meals, during recess or in the hallways. While the school may impose reasonable rules of order, the rules must be neutral and apply equally to both religious and non-religious activities. If a school allows kids to gather to talk about non-school topics during lunch or in between classes (and what school doesn’t?), it must allow them to pray during those times if they wish to.

Your child may read the Bible at school. Your child has the same right to read the Bible during non-instructional times, such as lunch or study hall, as he does to read other non-curricular books during non-instructional times. In other words, if your child can bring the Hardy Boys to school for recreational reading, he can bring in a Bible story book too.

Your child may discuss his faith with others and may even try to persuade others to his viewpoint. Schools may not prohibit religious discussion while allowing persuasive and sometimes controversial discussion on other subjects, such as politics or current events. However, school officials may intervene if they believe other children are being harassed or coerced.

Your child may participate in before or after school events with Christian content, such as Bible studies or prayer groups. If a school allows its premises to be used by non-curricular clubs and groups, it must allow Christians groups to meet at the school. It must also allow the Christian groups to use the school media allowed to non-religious groups, such as the PA system or bulletin boards.

Your child may openly celebrate Christmas. In addition, the school itself may celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas and may teach about (but not celebrate) the religious aspects of Christmas.

Your child may express his faith as part of a school assignment, such as homework, artwork or a book report. The government guidelines instruct teachers to judge this work by ordinary standards of substance and relevance without discrimination on the basis of religious content. Note that your child’s Christian expression should be appropriate to the assignment. For example, if asked to write an analysis of a current event he may write about a current event of religious significance or develop his analysis from a Christian perspective. He should not decide instead to write a Christian poem with no reference to current events at all.

Your child may distribute Christian literature at school. If the school allows students to distribute literature that is not related to the curriculum or school activities, it must allow students to distribute Christian literature as well. The school may develop reasonable rules about place, timing and method but those rules may not single out religious literature for special regulation.

Your child may wear Christian jewelry or clothing with a Christian message so long as the school does not have a rule against all jewelry or clothing with messages. In other words, public schools may adopt neutral rules about what cannot be worn by students but these rules cannot suppress religious messages while allowing other types of messages.

Your child may be excused from school for religious instruction at the school’s discretion subject to state law attendance requirements.

How your child exercises his First Amendment rights to Christian expression is a matter of serious consideration for you and your child. While in most situations we probably do not want to militantly wave our rights in non-believers’ faces, neither do we want our children to live in fear of expulsion for expressing a belief in God and it is appropriate as a parent to be aware of the freedom the law allows.

When a teacher or school administrator violates one of the above rights, it is often because he or she does not fully understand the law. The school may simply be overreacting to reports in the media or fear of parents with conflicting viewpoints. A soft answer and a copy of the Dept. of Education’s guidelines may be all that is necessary to clarify your child’s rights and resolve the situation. (The full text of the United States Department of Education Guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools is available at http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/religionandschools/prayer_guidance.html).

– Catherine Reid