General Rule: Public schools must maintain religious neutrality and public school teachers,
who are the employees and agents of the public schools, must not interfere with this objective.
To this end, teachers may not participate in religious activities or advocate particular
religious views when they are teaching or counseling students or acting as representatives of
the school. However, in circumstances where students are not present (e. g., in a faculty
lunchroom), teachers are afforded the same rights as any government employee (see ADL's
Religious Accommodation in the Workplace booklet).
May teachers share their religious views with students? No. Teachers should avoid sharing
their personal religious views with students, particularly those in the lower grades. If a
teacher's religious views become the subject of discussion, the teacher must make clear that
he or she is in no way encouraging students to adopt those views. Students must never be
encouraged to accept or conform to specific religious beliefs or practices. The Constitution
requires governmental agencies to see that state-supported activity -- such as a classroom --
is not used for religious indoctrination. 84 Thus, a school district can direct a teacher to
"refrain from expressions of religious viewpoints in the classroom and like settings." 85 And
in fact the school corporation has a constitutional duty to make "certain, given the Religion
Clauses, that subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion." 86 Courts have held that public
school officials have the authority to prevent teachers from giving students and others the
impression that the school prefers a particular religion, or religion in general. 87
May teachers wear religious symbols or clothing to school? Some courts have held that
state statutes restricting teachers from wearing certain clothing are constitutional. These
statutes are justified in order to preserve an atmosphere of religious neutrality and prevent
an appearance of endorsement of religion in public schools. However, even under such
statutes, teachers are permitted to wear decoration such as necklaces bearing crosses or Stars
of David, which some courts regarded as religiously "ambiguous." Without such a statute,
a teacher's religious garb may still violate the prohibition on government endorsement of
religion and should still be banned. 88
May teachers or other school personnel lead or participate in activities of religious organizations
held at their school during non-school hours? Yes, as long as such involvement is
undertaken in their capacity as individuals rather than representatives of the school and the
state. Great care must be taken by all parties to assure those who may view the teacher's
activity that the school and government are not endorsing the activity. (See prior section on
"Use of School Facilities By Outside Religious Organizations.")
Fourth-grader Asks Teacher About Her Cross Necklace
Mrs. Carlson, a fourth grade teacher, wears a small cross necklace visible to her students.
One of her students, Eric, notices the cross and asks her what it symbolizes. Mrs.
Carlson responds: "I wear it as a symbol that Jesus died for our sins." Eric tells his parents
that his teacher taught him that Jesus died for his sins. Eric's parents complain to
Was Mrs. Carlson correct to respond as she did?
No. While teachers may wear symbols of their faith, Mrs. Carlson should not have shared tenets
of her religion with Eric. It would have been sufficient to say that the cross is an important symbol
of her religion.