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Students! Know Your Rights: Religious Freedom

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Religious Freedom

The Separation of Church and State gif

The First Amendment guarantees the right to practice the religion of your choice and ensures that the government does not force you to practice religion if you don’t want to.


Religion in school

The separation between church and state is especially important in public schools. Why? Unless you are home-schooled or privately educated, you are required by law to attend a public school, which brings together people of many religious backgrounds in a secular learning environment.

Schools can teach about religion in the context of literature, history, or culture, but they cannot favor one religion over another, or, force anyone to believe in, observe, or practice a religion. Nor may schools conduct or promote religious activities, including prayer or religious devotionals. 47

As a student, you do have a right to express religious viewpoints and wear religious symbols, as long as those expressions don’t disrupt school activity. Schools may not show favoritism in what religious expression they allow.


LDS Seminary

Utah is unique in that many LDS public school students will attend an LDS seminary, often right next door to their school, during school hours. In 1981, the court found that this was not necessarily unconstitutional. Students can obtain what is called “release time” to attend private religious classes off campus, so long as the public school is not entangled in the religious institution. 48 How Utah has handled this is to consider the LDS seminaries as private schools and require the following:

  • Written permission from parents;
  • Class times can not conflict with required school classes;
  • Registration is separate from regular school;
  • Credits do not count toward graduation requirements and grades cannot be included in official school records or transcripts;
  • Classes cannot be held in public school facilities;
  • Seminary teachers cannot be members of the public school faculty or participate in public school functions;
  • No public funds or public school equipment can be used for religious instruction or promotion of seminary events;
  • Attending seminary is voluntary and public schools cannot encourage students to attend or punish them when they don’t;
  • Release time must be provided for students wishing to participate in religious instruction other than seminary. 49

Any violation of these policies is unconstitutional and should be brought to the attention of the State Board of Education, local school board or the ACLU.

Read the ACLU of Utah's position paper on LDS Seminary in Public Schools >>


Know Your Rights!

icon-LHS-76-77-yearbook-photosAna is the editor of her schools yearbook. She is already irritated that her classmates get out of school to attend seminary, but she was really steamed when she was told by the principal to make room in the yearbook for all the fun things they were doing in seminary. She wants to know if this is legal.

No, it isn’t legal in fact it is unconstitutional. A public school publication cannot publish articles, pictures or reports related to released time activities. If they were to do so it would be an endorsement of the LDS religion, which makes such actions unconstitutional.


Intelligent design

Some religious groups object to the teaching of evolution in science classes because, in their view, it contradicts the Bible’s teachings about the creation of the universe. These groups want schools to teach an alternative to evolution, such as creationism or intelligent design.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court held that laws requiring schools to teach creationism alongside evolution violate the First Amendment. 50 Schools cannot restructure science classes to “conform with a particular religious viewpoint.” 51

Some religious groups want schools to teach intelligent design, which is similar to creationism. A Pennsylvania court recently held that teaching intelligent design violated the First Amendment. The court stated that intelligent design is a type of creationism and is a religious theory, not a scientific one. 52


Creationism — A belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible regarding the creation of the universe and of all living things.

Evolution — Changes in the genetic composition of individuals within a population that over generations result in the development of a new species.

Intelligent design — A belief that nature and living things were designed by intelligent beings and were not created by chance.

Secular — Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body. 53 

Read the ACLU of Utah's position paper on "The Teaching of Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Divine Design in Public Schools" >>



Moments of silence

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that school-sponsored or voluntary moments of silence are sometimes allowed because silence itself is not religious. In Utah a teacher may provide for the observance of a period of silence each school day in the public school. [Utah Code § 53 A-11-901-5]



Know Your Rights!

allegianceGerri is an atheist. She does not want to say the Pledge of Allegiance at school with the rest of her class because of the line “One nation, under God.” Does she have to say the Pledge?

The Supreme Court recently ruled that reciting or listening to others say the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the First Amendment because “reciting the Pledge, or listening to others recite it, was a patriotic exercise, not a religious one.” 54 However, the school cannot make Gerri say the Pledge if she is uncomfortable with it. For example, if Gerri is not comfortable saying “under God,” she can skip that part.




Contrary to popular myth, the Supreme Court has never outlawed “prayer in school”. As a student, you are free to pray on your own or in student groups, as long as such prayers are not disruptive and do not infringe upon the rights of others at school. But it can’t be prayer for a captive audience, like at a school assembly, football game or graduation, or to compel other students to participate. School staff cannot be involved in student prayer or it becomes an endorsement by the school and therefore unconstitutional.

Public school officials are not allowed to lead students in prayer or Bible-reading sessions. 55  They may not set aside time intended for prayer, even if a student can choose to “opt-out” of the prayer. 56



Did you know?

Public schools may not hang pictures of Jesus 57 or the Ten Commandments inside classrooms or hallways. 58 Such displays would represent a school endorsement of religion, which is not allowed under the First Amendment.


Sporting events

ten-commandmentsStudent-led prayer is a controversial topic that often comes up at sporting events, in locker rooms, or on the loud speaker before the game. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not allow school-sponsored prayer at sporting events, even if led by students, because it unfairly discriminates against people of a different religion and people who do not believe in religion. 59

Courts have held that the First Amendment prohibits students from holding an election to decide whether to pray at a school-sponsored event. If an election were to favor a majority of students who prefer a religious message, it would ignore a minority of students who might feel uncomfortable with that message. 60


Religious dress

Schools may not prohibit religious attire in general, and they cannot single out a specific religion by forbidding certain attire. For example, many Sikh people wear a turban and some carry ceremonial daggers. Schools cannot ban Sikh attire in general, but they may ban all knives, including Sikh ceremonial daggers, for safety reasons. 61


Religious observances

Another controversial area for schools is religious observances. Students’ participation in Christmas activities may be unconstitutional because these programs advance religion. Allowing students to opt out of such programs is not an adequate compromise, since the school would still be promoting religious beliefs. Nor can schools to try to include all religions in holiday celebrations, since many students either do not have any religious beliefs or follow faiths that do not have any holidays around Christmas. It might be acceptable for schools to include Christmas trees or Chanukah Menorahs in activities, since the courts have said these are not necessarily religious symbols. 62


Know Your Rights!

bible-1On her way to school, Judy was stopped by a member of the Gideon's who tried to give her a Bible. She was very upset about this because she is Muslim. She complained to her principal, who told her that the Gideon's have the right to distribute Bibles. Is her principal correct?

It depends on where the Bible distributor was when he gave Judy the Bible. Bibles cannot be distributed on school property or during regular school hours. 63 However, it might be allowed if she received the Bible on a public sidewalk in front of the school. 64

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