Is it legal to pray in school?

Yes, students can pray at school, but a public school may never direct students to pray, nor can school officials, including teachers and coaches. Nor can school officials pray to the students.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects an individual’s right to freely exercise her religion.1 This includes the right to pray.2 But school officials, whether they be administrators, teachers, or coaches, cannot demand, direct, or endorse student prayers. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that government make no law respecting an establishment of religion, a prohibition which extends to state governments via the Fourteenth Amendment.3 The U.S. Supreme Court has noted that, when it comes to the education of our children, the government should be “particularly vigilant” in ensuring schools do not promote religious views that may conflict with the religious beliefs of students and their families.4 This includes laws or policies which permit teachers to direct students in prayers, songs, or recitations which espouse a sectarian point of view.5 The Supreme Court has also concluded that organized prayers on school grounds prior to sporting events, whether staff- or student-led, constitute an impermissible government establishment of religion.6

While school-authorized sectarian prayer is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, not every instance of a student encountering a prayer in an educational setting is a violation of the Constitution. Context matters. Although the Supreme Court has not directly addressed the issue, the federal appellate courts which have grappled with the question have concluded that religious content and discussion which does not forward one particular religious viewpoint may very well be appropriate and constitutional in a high school comparative religion class, or a unit on the bible as a literary work.7

If your or your child’s school or school district, or a member of staff, have a policy or practice of demanding, directing, or endorsing student prayer, please contact the AALC.

1. U.S. Const. Amend. I.
2. Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 313 (2000).
3. School District of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 205 (1963).
4. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 583 (1987); see also Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 274, n.14 (1981).
5. Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 44, n.23 (1985).
6. Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 311-12 (2000).
7. Skoros v. City of New York, 437 F.3d 1, 31 (2d Cir. 2006); Hall v. Board of School Comm’rs, 656 F.2d 999, 1002 (5th Cir. 1981); see also Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 606-08 (1987) (Powell, J., concurring); Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963); Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Br. of Educ., 333 U.S. 203, 235-36 (1948) (Jackson, J., concurring).

Am I legally permitted to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance, or the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner?

Yes.

The Free Speech, Free Exercise, and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution all preclude compulsory participation in recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance and The Star Spangled Banner. The Supreme Court has been as clear and forceful as possible on this issue:

Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

…There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. Authority here is to be controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by authority.

To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. … [F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.1

It is worth noting that the Supreme Court issued the ruling above in a time when the Pledge did not include the words “under God.” While the language of the Pledge has changed over time, the position of the courts on this question has not. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals eloquently stated that, so long as recitation of the Pledge is optional, it does not run afoul of “one of the great principles of our nation, when it comes to participating in non-violent religious exercises, or holding particular religious views: All may, none must.2 Whether the policy involves the Pledge of Allegiance or The Star Spangled Banner, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the government may not compel “the endorsement of ideas that it approves.”3

1. W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 641-42 (1943).
2. Newdow v. Rio Linda Union Sch. Dist., 597 F.3d 1007, 1036 (9th Cir. 2010) (emphasis added).
3. Knox v. SEIU, Local 1000, ___ U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2277, 2288 (2012).

Is it illegal for my school to prevent me from starting an atheist club?

Yes, as long as your school allows any non-curricular student clubs it must allow atheist and religious clubs.

The Equal Access Act1 (“EAA”) requires all secondary schools which receive federal funds (effectively all American public high schools) to permit students to hold meetings and form groups around particular religious points of view, so long as the school permits students to form any non-curricular groups in the first place.2

There are certain requirements which student groups must abide by in order to be protected by the EAA,3 including:

  1. The meeting is voluntary and student-initiated;
  2. There is no sponsorship of the meeting by the school, the government, or its agents or employees;
  3. Any teachers, employees or other school officials who attend the meetings for such a group may only observe the meeting. They cannot participate;
  4. The meetings cannot disrupt the orderly conduct of educational activities within the school; and
  5. No one from outside the school may direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.

If your school permits students to create groups which deal with topics independent of the courses at the school (non-curricular groups), it cannot deny you the opportunity to create an atheist group or dissolve an existing atheist group, unless the group violates any of the rules listed above.4

It is important to note that the information above only applies to student-led groups. Different rules and standards apply to outside groups.5

If your school has prevented the formation of an atheist club while permitting religious student-led groups to form, please submit the information to the American Atheists Legal Center.

1. 20 U.S.C. § 4071.
2. 20 U.S.C. § 4071(a).
3. 20 U.S.C. § 4071(c).
4. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98 (2001).
5. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98 (2001).

Is it legal for my teacher to talk about religion in class?

Yes, but only in limited contexts.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from favoring one religious position over another, or singling out one religious position for disfavor.1 Moreover, when it comes to the education of our children, the government should be “particularly vigilant” in ensuring schools do not promote religious views that may conflict with the religious beliefs of students and their families.2 Consequently, a public school teacher, or other administrator, may never engage in a discussion which promotes a particular religious view, or singles out a particular view for negative treatment.

However, not every instance of a student encountering a religious discussion in an educational setting is a violation of the Constitution. The context and purpose of the discussion matter. Although the Supreme Court has not directly addressed the issue, the federal appellate courts which have grappled with the question have concluded that discussions of religious tenants, concepts, and traditions may very well be appropriate and constitutional, but are subject to certain limitations.3

First, the course cannot promote a particular religious view above the others it presents.4 Second, the age of the students participating in the discussion is highly relevant to determining whether a discussion of religious matters is constitutional.5 Elementary school students will be less able to disentangle the teacher’s role as an authority figure from the substance of the discussion than would their high-school-age sisters and brothers.6 Therefore, a comparative religion class or a unit on the Bible as a literary work as part of a high school curriculum could very well be constitutionally sound.7

If a teacher or staff member at a school in your community is endorsing or promoting any religion, or discussing religion with students outside the contexts described above, please contact the AALC so that we can look into the matter and determine what steps, if any, should be taken.

1. U.S. Const. Amend I.; Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612 (1971).
2. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 583 (1987); see also Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 274, n.14 (1981).
3. Skoros v. City of New York, 437 F.3d 1, 31 (2d Cir. 2006); Hall v. Board of School Comm’rs, 656 F.2d 999, 1002 (5th Cir. 1981); see also Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 606-08 (1987) (Powell, J., concurring); Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963); Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Br. of Educ., 333 U.S. 203, 235-36 (1948) (Jackson, J., concurring).
4. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 583 (1987); see also Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 274, n.14 (1981).
5. School Dist. v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373, 390 (1985).
6. Bd. of Educ. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 250 (1990).
7. Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963).

Is it legal for my school to allow an outside organization to give a religious presentation to students during class time?

Yes, so long as the presentation is purely educational and part of a comparative religion curriculum.

A school does not necessarily violate the constitution if it allows members of a particular religion to give a presentation to students in order to educate the students about the history, culture, and tenets of that religion. Not every instance of a student encountering a religious discussion in an educational setting is a violation of the Constitution. The context and purpose of the discussion matter. Although the Supreme Court has not directly addressed the issue, the federal appellate courts which have grappled with the question have concluded that discussions of religious tenants, concepts, and traditions may very well be appropriate and constitutional, but are subject to certain limitations.1 A school could allow members of a local Native American tribe to give a presentation educating the students as to their religious beliefs, so long as the school does not endorse those views as the correct or official view. The same would be true of a local Buddhist, Mormon, Muslim, or Hindu congregation, as well as a local atheist group.

The U.S. Constitution draws a line, however, at the endorsement or promotion of a particular religious view. School officials cannot demand, direct, or endorse religious observance by students, either directly or by inviting an outside group to address students during class time. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that government make no law respecting an establishment of religion, a prohibition which extends to state governments via the Fourteenth Amendment.2 The U.S. Supreme Court has noted that, when it comes to the education of our children, the government should be “particularly vigilant” in ensuring schools do not promote religious views that may conflict with the religious beliefs of students and their families.3 This includes policies which permit outside groups to promote a sectarian point of view to students during class time.4

If your school is permitting or inviting a religious organization to promote its own religious point of view to students, please report the issue to the American Atheists Legal Center so that we can investigate the matter.

1. Skoros v. City of New York, 437 F.3d 1, 31 (2d Cir. 2006); Hall v. Board of School Comm’rs, 656 F.2d 999, 1002 (5th Cir. 1981); see also Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 606-08 (1987) (Powell, J., concurring); Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963); Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Br. of Educ., 333 U.S. 203, 235-36 (1948) (Jackson, J., concurring).
2. U.S. Const., Amend. I; School District of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 205 (1963).
3. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 583 (1987); see also Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 274, n.14 (1981).
4. Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 44, n.23 (1985).

Is it legal for my school to allow an outside organization to offer religious materials to students?

Probably, if it allows other groups to do the same.

Although the courts have yet to definitively resolve this specific question,1 numerous decisions from the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts strongly suggest that if your school allows outside organizations, such as the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters, or any local businesses, it has created a “limited public forum”–a “nontraditional fora to which limited access is permitted” for the purposes of public speech and advocacy2–and has to open that forum on an equal basis to other outside groups, religious and secular alike.3 This requirement is less about protecting religious liberty than about protecting the freedom of speech. Excluding religious organizations simply because they deal with religious topics, without some further justification, would constitute a viewpoint-based restriction on speech, censorship which would violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.4 Having created a limited public forum, a school “may be justified in reserving its forum for certain groups or for the discussion of certain topics.”5 The reasoning underlying these cases indicate that where a school has established a limited public forum, such as a table containing fliers, pamphlets, and other materials provided by and promoting local charitable organization, it must reasonably permit religious organizations to do so in a similar fashion.

If a school in your community is giving a religious group privileged access to its students, please inform the American Atheists Legal Center.

1. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98, 106 (2001).
2. Travis v. Owego-Apalachin School Dist., No. 90-cv-90, 1990 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8492, *10 (N.D. N.Y., Jul. 5, 1990); see also Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37, 46 (1983).
3. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98, 111-12 (2001); Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 267, n.5 (1981).
4. Christian Legal Soc’y Chapter of the Univ. of Cal. v. Martinez, 561 U.S. 661, 679 (2010); Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98, 112 (2001).
5. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98, 106-07 (2001); see also Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 270 (1981); Bronx Household of Faith v. Bd. of Educ., 750 F.3d 184, 199-200 (2d Cir. 2014).

Is it legal for my school to teach creationism or intelligent design in science class?

No.

In a 1987 decision titled Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court declared a state law mandating the teaching of creationism along side evolution in science classes to be unconstitutional.1 The teaching of creationism or intelligent design “alter[s] the science curriculum to reflect endorsement of a religious view that is antagonistic to the theory of evolution.”2 Courts throughout the country have cited the Supreme Court’s holding in Edwards when striking down attempts to inject, in one way or another, religious doctrine into the public school science curriculum.3

Most notably, the repackaging of “creation science” as “intelligent design” was found to be an unconstitutional addition to the Dover Area School District’s science curriculum.4 The trial court in that case found that intelligent design amounted to nothing more than “the progeny of creationism.”5 Whether under the guise of “creation science,” “intelligent design,” “irreducible complexity,” or any other attempt at a clever name, creationism attempts to change or expand the fundamental principles of the scientific process in order to introduce the idea of a supernatural creator.6 Any such attempt is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

If your school district, or a school in your community, includes “creation science,” “intelligent design,” “irreducible complexity,” or any other form of religious doctrine in its science curriculum, please contact the AALC so that we can look into the matter.

1. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
2. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987); see also Kitzmiller v. Dover, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707, 736 (M.D. Pa. 2005).
3. See Kitzmiller v. Dover, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707, 736 (M.D. Pa. 2005); Selman v. Cobb County Sch. Dist., 390 F. Supp. 2d 1286 (N.D. Ga. Jan. 13, 2005); Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Bd. of Educ., 185 F.3d 337 (5th Cir. 1999);
4. Kitzmiller v. Dover, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005).
5. Kitzmiller v. Dover, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707, 721 (M.D. Pa. 2005).
6. Kitzmiller v. Dover, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707, 736 (M.D. Pa. 2005).

Is it legal for my school to include a prayer in our graduation ceremony?

No. Just as a school cannot require or encourage its students to pray during classes or at sporting events, a public school cannot include prayer in its graduation ceremony.

In 1963, the Supreme Court definitively answered the question of whether government sponsored prayer in a public school is constitutionally permissible.1 Apparently, the Court’s decision in Schempp was not comprehensive enough, though, because in 1992 the Court clarified that “the Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation. This is the calculus the Constitution commands.”2 The fact that students may be free to attend the ceremony or not, ostensibly making the act of silently suffering through the prayer a voluntary one, was no defense:

[T]o say a teenage student has a real choice not to attend her high school graduation is formalistic in the extreme. . . . Everyone knows that in our society and in our culture high school graduation is one of life’s most significant occasions. A school rule which excuses attendance is beside the point. Attendance may not be required by official decree, yet it is apparent that a student is not free to absent herself from the graduation exercise in any real sense of the term “voluntary,” for absence would require forfeiture of those intangible benefits which have motivated the student through youth and all her high school years. Graduation is a time for family and those closest to the student to celebrate success and express mutual wishes of gratitude and respect, all to the end of impressing upon the young person the role that it is his or her right and duty to assume in the community and all of its diverse parts.3

The decisions of federal courts around the country provide additional clarity. A prayer delivered by a representative of the student body, chosen by popular vote, would likely constitute a violation4 (though a small minority of courts have come to a different conclusion5), as would a prayer delivered by a student during a valedictory address.6 That the graduation ceremony is an important rite of passage for students, which many would view as incomplete without a prayer, is no justification.7 The very fact that religious significance would be attached to a prayer at a graduation ceremony is further reason for the school to avoid any such practice.8

If a school in your community permits or encourages prayer during its graduation ceremonies, please inform the American Atheists Legal Center.

1. Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 223-25 (1963).
2. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 596 (1992).
3. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 595 (1992).
4. Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 309-10 (2000) (student elections to select pupil to deliver pre-game prayer did not render prayer constitutional); Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 596 (1992) (“While in some societies the wishes of the majority might prevail, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is addressed to this contingency and rejects the balance urged upon us.”); Bd. of Regents v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 235-36 (2000) (student groups’ right to support from university funds not susceptible to popular vote); ACLU v. Black Horse Pike Regional Bd. of Educ., 84 F.3d 1471, 1483 (3d Cir. 1996).
5. Adler v. Duval County Sch. Bd., 250 F.3d 1330 (11th Cir. 2001); Jones v. Clear Creek Indep. Sch. Dist., 977 F.2d 963, 971-72 (5th Cir. 1992) (“The practical result of our decision . . . is that a majority of students can do what the State acting on its own cannot do to incorporate prayer in public high school graduation ceremonies.”).
6. Cole v. Oroville Union High Sch., 228 F.3d 1092, 1101 (9th Cir. 2000);
7. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 595 (1992).
8. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 595-96 (1992).

Is it legal for a church or religious organization to use my school as a meeting place?

Yes, so long as the school opens its facilities to outside groups on an equal basis and the meetings do not occur during class time.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from favoring one religious position over another, or singling out one religious position for disfavor.1 The government also cannot show hostility toward religion generally.2 If a school allows groups to use its facilities when it is not being used to educate students,3 it has created a limited public forum.4 Selectively excluding a group from a limited public forum based solely on the group’s point of view would constitute impermissible viewpoint discrimination.5 As a consequence, if a school opens its door to outside groups, it cannot specifically exclude certain groups because they happen to be religious in nature.6

However, because the school has opened its facilities as a limited public forum, the school is allowed to place reasonable limits on how its facilities are used by outside groups.7 Therefore, a school may impose a rule that no group can use its facilities for worship services.8 By imposing that kind of restriction, the school does not exclude groups based on their point of view, but rather limiting the permissible uses of the facilities by any outside group.9 Such a restriction would be a reasonable attempt by the school to avoid violating the Establishment Clause.10 But that does not mean that permitting a group to use school facilities for worship services would necessarily violate the Establishment Clause, only that excluding worship services is a reasonable restriction imposed in order to avoid a potential violation.

1. U.S. Const. Amend I.; Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612 (1971).
2. Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 314 (1952); Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Bd. of Educ., 333 U.S. 203, 211-12 (1948).
3. Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Bd. of Educ., 333 U.S. 203, 212 (1948).
4. Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37, 46 (1983).
5. Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37, 46 (1983).
6. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98, 111-12 (2001).
7. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98, 106-07 (2001); Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819, 829-30 (1995).
8. Bronx Household of Faith v. Bd. of Educ., 650 F.3d 30, 44-45 (2d Cir. 2011).
9. Bronx Household of Faith v. Bd. of Educ., 650 F.3d 30, 40 (2d Cir. 2011).
10. Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd. v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753, 761-62 (1995).