May 11, 1995
Religion in Our Nation's Public Schools
New York, NY, ...The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and its Legal
Affairs Department have prepared the following frequently-asked questions
about religious activities in the public schools, with answers about what
is, and what is not permissible.
The current national debate on religion in public schools highlights the
fact that many Americans wrongly believe nearly all religious expression
and activities are banned in our nation's public schools. In fact, private
religious student expression in the public schools is almost always protected,
while any school endorsement of religious expression is always prohibited.
ADL combats racial and religious prejudice, and adheres to the principle
of safeguarding the religious liberties of all people. The League consistently
advocates a strict interpretation of the establishment clause of the Constitution
which separates church and state because history has demonstrated that the
inevitable result of a union of government and religion is the destruction
of freedom for those who believe differently from the majority. In order
to protect the free exercise of religion, ADL has filed amici briefs in
several Supreme Court cases over the years.
Q. Is organized prayer permitted in public schools?
A. No. The United States Supreme Court has clearly ruled that organized
vocal prayer and ceremonial reading from the Bible are unconstitutional
practices in the public school classroom. Furthermore, organized prayer
is not permitted at student assemblies, athletic activities and special
Q. Is private student prayer permitted in public schools?
A. Yes. Students have the right to engage in individual prayer which is
not coercive and does not substantially disrupt the school's educational
mission and activities. For example, all students have the right to silently
say a prayer before a test, or grace before a meal. However, school officials
must not be involved with private student prayer in any way, since any school
promotion or endorsement of a student's private religious activity is unconstitutional.
Q. Is organized prayer permitted at public school graduation ceremonies?
A. No. The United States Supreme Court in a 1992 decision, Lee v. Weisman,
determined that organized prayers at public school graduation ceremonies
are unconstitutional, even if the prayers are voluntary and non-denominational.
The Supreme Court was specifically concerned that students would be coerced,
as a result of public and peer pressure, into participating in such prayer.
Q. Is student-initiated organized prayer permitted at public school
A. No. Based upon the Supreme Court's reasoning in its 1992 graduation prayer
case, Lee v. Weisman, student-initiated graduation prayer is also unconstitutional.
While one Federal Appeals Court determined that it was permissible to include
a student-led graduation prayer which a senior class voted to include, its
decision is inconsistent with the Supreme Court's ruling in Lee, and is
also inconsistent with other lower court opinions. In fact, another Federal
Appeals Court specifically disagreed with the reasoning that upheld student-initiated
graduation prayer and determined that such prayer is unconstitutional.
Q. May a valedictorian offer a prayer at a public school graduation
A. Yes. When valedictorians speak on a topic of their choice at their graduation
ceremony, they may speak on a religious topic or offer a prayer. Since the
school is in no way promoting or sponsoring this religious activity, it
is different from cases where the school organizes or allows the student
body to organize a graduation prayer.
Q. May baccalaureate services include prayers?
A. Yes. As long as they are privately led, baccalaureate services which
are voluntary and not part of the official graduation ceremonies may constitutionally
include prayers and religious sermons. School endorsement of such baccalaureate
services is not permitted.
Q. Are "moments of silence" constitutional?
A. No. Federal courts have determined that "moments of silence"
which have either the purpose or effect of promoting prayer are unconstitutional.
In a 1985 case, Wallace v. Jaffree, the United States Supreme Court struck
down Alabama's moment of silence statute.
Student Religious Clubs -- The Equal Access Act
Q. What is the Equal Access Act?
A. The Equal Access Act (EAA) requires Federally-funded high schools to
treat student-initiated religious clubs in the same way they treat other
extra-curricular, student-initiated clubs -- provided certain criteria have been met.
Q. Under EAA, are school officials required to allow all student
clubs to meet, including student-initiated religious clubs?
A. No. School officials can disallow extra-curricular clubs, including religious
ones. However, religious clubs may not be singled out and denied the opportunity
Q. May school officials lead or support student religious clubs
under the terms of the EAA?
A. No. The EAA is only applicable if the religious group is student-initiated,
sponsored and led, and participation in the group is voluntary. School personnel may not
initiate, sponsor, promote, lead or participate in religious club meetings,
but school officials have the right to monitor club meetings to ensure compliance
with the EAA.
Q. What precautions should school officials take when student-initiated
religious clubs meet under the EAA? A. School officials must ensure that
there is no appearance of school sponsorship
or endorsement of religion. Officials may issue disclaimers clearly stating
that the school is not sponsoring, endorsing or promoting any extra-curricular
Religion in the Curriculum
Q. May school officials engage in religious instruction in the public schools?
A. No. It is clearly unconstitutional for educators to teach religion or
engage in religious indoctrination and practice in the public schools. It
is also unconstitutional to celebrate religious holidays through religious
worship or practice.
Q. May school officials teach about religion in the public schools?
A. Yes. Teaching about religion is permissible when it is presented as part
of a secular educational program. Such programs should teach the role of
religion in the historical, cultural, economic and social development of
the United States and other nations, and should instill tolerance and respect
for a pluralistic society.
Q. How should the public schools teach about religion?
A. Religion must be discussed in a neutral, objective, balanced and factual
manner. The curriculum's approach may not be devotional or doctrinal, nor
have the effect of promoting or inhibiting religion.
Q. May a public school science teacher's right to teach evolution be restricted?
A. No. The United States Supreme Court has determined that it is unconstitutional
to restrict an educator's right to teach evolution.
Q. May educators who teach evolution also be required to teach creationism?
A. No. The United States Supreme Court determined that it is unconstitutional
to require educators who teach evolution to teach creationism as well.
Q. May creationism be taught in the public schools?
A. Creationism -- which includes any theory that the universe was created
by a divine being -- may not be taught as a scientific fact in public schools. However,
creationism may be included in a class on comparative religion as an example
of how some religious groups believe human life began.
Q. Is it appropriate for public schools to censor books based on religious
A. No. The Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional to alter the curriculum
in response to the practices or prohibitions of any religion. This includes
the banning of books unacceptable to certain religious groups.
Q. May students refuse to use textbooks because of their parents' religious objections?
A. A Federal Court of Appeals (the United States Court of Appeals for the
6th Circuit) ruled schoolchildren do not have the right to be excused from
using textbooks (in this case the Holt Rinehart and Winston basic reading
series) simply because they or their parents find the books offensive. A
public school could constitutionally require all students to use a prescribed
set of books as long as the children were merely required to read and discuss
the material and were not required to do something contrary to their religion.
Distribution of Religious Materials By Outsiders
Q. May public schools allow outsiders to distribute religious materials
on school grounds?
A. No. Public schools may not allow outsiders to distribute religious material,
including Bibles, to students on school premises.
Q. Do outsiders have an unlimited right to distribute religious
materials on public property near a public school?
A. No. While outsiders may distribute religious material to students on
public property off school premises, school officials have the right to
implement reasonable restrictions. These restrictions must be content-neutral
and not treat outsiders distributing religious material differently from
outsiders distributing other types of material.
Distribution of Religious Materials by Students
Q. Do students have an unlimited right to distribute religious materials
in public schools?
A. No. Students have a limited right to free expression in public schools,
which includes distribution of written materials. However, this right may
be limited if it substantially interferes with the school's activities,
or infringes upon the rights of other students.
Q. What are school officials rights and responsibilities when students
distribute religious materials in the public schools? A. There can
be no school endorsement or appearance of endorsement of the
religious materials being distributed.
School Voucher Plans
Q. Are school voucher plans for private sectarian schools constitutional?
A. No. Voucher plans that permit voucher redemption in private religious
schools violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment because
such plans are the equivalent of direct government aid to religious institutions.
Government taxes are collected to be used for such public purposes as funding
public schools, and it is unconstitutional for the Government to use this
tax money to fund private religious schools.
Q. Aside from the establishment clause violation, what other problems
are raised by voucher plans?
A. Voucher plans raise serious questions of equity. Many private schools,
which could be eligible for voucher money, discriminate on the basis of
religion, gender, physical disability, language and socioeconomic status.
Voucher plans usually cover only a fraction of private school tuition, and
therefore will be of little assistance to the poor.
Furthermore, voucher plans seriously threaten public school budgets and
could therefore jeopardize the quality of public schools. Public education
provides many children in this country with the opportunity to acculturate.
As our country becomes increasingly fragmented along racial, ethnic and
religious lines, the importance of the public school system as a unifying
factor also increases. Furthermore, a viable public school system is essential
to an informed citizenry, and a healthy democracy.
The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world's leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.