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Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools
January 16, 2020

Teachers who wish to pray or engage in other group religious activities must do so outside of the presence of students.

–Gibbs, David C., Jr., and David C. Gibbs III (2008). Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Seminole: Christian Law Association.

Listen to this podcast from the radio program Law Talk Live “Making Sense of Religion in America’s Public Schools” from Dec. 28, 2013.

Frequently Asked Questions

Click on the questions to reveal the answers. All answers are directly taken from Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs (2008).

May a teacher who objects to political or anti-religious positions taken by teacher’s union withhold that portion of union dues?

Public employee unions may only require a pro rata share of dues to be used for legitimate costs of union benefits, such as collective bargaining.  If an employee (including a teacher) objects to dues being spent on political or ideological causes, that employee has a free speech right not to be compelled to support that portion of union activities.  Teachers must be permitted to redirect that portion of their union dues that would be used to support objectionable ideological or political causes.  Teachers may also elect to join an alternative teacher’s organization. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008d

May a school bus driver, cafeteria worker, janitor, or secretary talk to students about religion or pray with them?

All school staff and employees, including bus drivers and other staff, are under the same restrictions as teachers with respect to religious interaction with students.  Bus drivers and other staff are also agents of the state and, therefore, capable of violating the Establishment Clause. However,  just as with teachers, when bus drivers or other school personnel are away from the school and on their own time, they may interact with students about religion. Several other situations may arise with bus drivers.  For instance, a bus driver is generally not permitted to play religious music on the bus or to have a Bible visible on the bus while students are on board.  However, a bus driver could permit students to take turns choosing a radio station and religious students could be permitted to choose a religious station when their turn came.  Also, bus drivers should permit students to interact privately with each other regarding religion while on the bus, as long as the interaction does not constitute harassment. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May coaches lead sports teams in prayer before games?

The Christian Law Association (CLA) has fielded many telephone inquiries from teachers and coaches about their rights to pray before a sporting event.  In one instance, a coach had been confronted by school administrators because he regularly gathered the team together to pray just prior to the start of the game.  Since this practice has been declared to be unconstitutional, attorneys representing CLA recommend that coaches absent themselves from these prayer sessions and permit the students to initiate and lead any pre-game prayers on their own.  If the coaches are present, they may take a respectful posture, but should not actively participate in the student prayers. Although the constitutionality of this approach has never been tested in court, according to the general rules regarding Establishment Clause issues, one way for a coach to participate in a voluntary prayer time might be to gather with the players off school property before he and the players are required to be at the school.  For example, one community little league coach told players on his team that he would be praying at a picnic table adjacent to the official playing field 15 minutes before he as scheduled to be at the field.  Any players who wanted to join him for prayer at that time, before their scheduled game time, were free to do so.  Another coach invited his players to attend various churches with him on their own time on Sunday mornings.  Invitations for such activities should be extended away from the school and with parental knowledge and approval. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May teachers participate in student-initiated and student-led prayer activities as the “See You At the Pole” event?

It is clear that neither school officials nor teachers may encourage or discourage student participation in prayer event such as SYATP.  It is also clear that the school may appoint a teacher or several teachers to monitor such student event.  In such cases, however, the moitor should not become a participant. Since events such as SYATP are generally permitted under the Equal Access Act, it is reasonable to assume that the same restrictions would apply with respect to participation by teachers or school officials in the prayer.  The school may appoint a teacher to attend the event to monitor or keep order, just as it does for Equal Access Bible clubs, which must also be student-sponsored and student-led to avoid Establishment Clause violations. What is less clear is how the courts would apply the rules to a teacher attending and participating in a SYATP event as a private citizen if the event were held before the official school day began.  A teacher could not attend and participate under these circumstances if she had specifically been told not to do so by her superiors.  If school officials have not specifically prohibited teacher participation under these circumstances, however, it is legally unsettled as to whether teachers who have not started their workday may attend and participate. It is less risky, and therefore legally preferable, for teachers who have already started their workday to meet together with other teachers for prayer at another location (perhaps in the faculty lounge) during the SYATP event to avoid the appearance of school sponsorship, while still supporting the students in prayer. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May teachers participate in student Bible clubs?

The Equal Access Act does not permit teachers to participate in the substantive religious discussions of a student religious group.  The clubs must be both student-initiated and student-led.  A teacher assigned by the school to attend meetings of an Equal Assess Bible Club may attend only in a nonparticipatory capacity under the specific terms of the EAA. [Hyperlink EAA—info on it will be listed below] A faculty member may meet with student leaders of the Bible club off campus in order to assist and train them to witness to other students.  One teacher who contacted CLA about this matter was initially frustrated by this restriction, but chose to use the situation to mentor a few student leaders and train them to disciple other students.  It was heartening for this teacher to then see the students take an active role in leading their classmates to Christ, something that might not have developed so well had the students relied on the teacher to do the witnessing herself. Schools may appoint nonreligious, or even antireligious, teachers to monitor the Bible club.  This situation can even have a positive result.  One student reported to CLA that his Bible club’s school-appointed monitor accepted Christ as her Savior when the student gave a salvation invitation to the other students.  While this response may technically violated the Establishment Clause, no n of the club’s students complained about the experience to school officials. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May teachers permit students to discuss religion in the classroom?

Since students do have freedom of speech in school, they should be permitted to discuss their religious beliefs in the classroom as long as their comments are pertinent to the discussion at hand.  Since the teacher exercises pedagogical control of the classroom, she must permit students to discuss religion when it is relevant to the topic at hand.  However, when this is done, all viewpoints should be equally welcomed and the teacher’s viewpoint should not be obvious. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May a teacher talk about her personal religious viewpoints in the classroom?

In general, teachers may not read the Bible or tell Bible stories, conduct devotional exercises, or pray in the classroom.  Teachers may not witness to students even in private conversation while on school grounds.  On the other hand, teachers may include objective information about religion wherever it naturally falls in the course curriculum.  Generally, attorneys for the Christian Law Association (CLA) advise that the safest way for teachers and students to interact subjectively about religious issues is off campus when the teacher’s workday has ended and the student’s parents have given permission for the exchange. Occasionally, CLA receives a call that demonstrates why teachers are not permitted to proselytize their students during school hours.  One father called concerned that his daughter was being forced to participate in non-Christian religious observances prior to the Christmas holidays.  Since the school had banned the celebration of Christmas, this first-grade teacher had determined to have her public school class engage in activities surrounding her own celebration of Kwanzaa was purely a cultural and not a religious holiday, bur attorneys representing CLA were able to demonstrate to school officials that students were, in fact, being exposed to pagan religious rituals during these holiday celebrations.  School officials intervened to prevent this religious activity in the classroom. Another father called when his second-grader was required to participate in an art project in which the students made Buddhist worship artifacts.  The students were then taken to a Buddhist Temple to observe how the Buddhist priests used these objects in worship.  The elementary school principal was shocked that a Christian parent would not want his child to participate in this “cultural” field trip.  Attorneys for CLA pointed out to the principal that he would not likely have permitted this second-grade teacher to take the class to a Catholic mass or to a Baptist revival service or require the students to make crucifixes in art class. A mother called when her daughter was taught in a public chool class that the Bible was no more inspired than the Koran.  This teacher had also informed her students that Catholicism was the only true religion.  Unfortunately, because parents do not want their students to be exposed to proselytizing in school by religious groups with which they do not agree, Christian teachers must also be prohibited from engaging in any type of Christian witnessing activity with students in class. If a teacher’s superior has instructed her not to discuss her personal religious viewpoints in the classroom, that request should be diligently adhered to.  Some teachers have legally been fired, not for discussing religion specifically, but for disobeying the direct order of a superior. On the other hand, if no school policy forbids it and if a teacher knows her class well enough to discuss her personal religious viewpoints in the classroom, the following guidelines should be strictly adhered to:The discussion should be relevant to the academic curriculum.
  1. The comments should be age-appropriate.
  2. The discussion should not take up a large percentage of classroom time.
  3. The teacher should make sure that students understand these are her personal viewpoints, which the students are free to either accept or reject, and that they do not represent the view of the school district.
  4. The teacher should be careful not to engage in any sort of proselytizing in the classroom—either for against religion.
The guidelines given above should only be followed in circumstances where the teacher has never been told by the administration to avoid discussing religion in the classroom.  A teacher may also choose to answer questions about her personal religious viewpoint by engaging in a two-part answer.  The teacher could say: “A Christian believes” and then she may follow-up that comment, if asked, by telling the class that she is a Christian.  Even this type of exchange should be avoided, however, if teachers have been told not to discuss religion with students. In the absence of complaints by students or parent, teacher and other school officials have a great deal of discretion as to what will be permitted in the classroom.  Teachers are generally free to control the content of their classroom discussions, including religious content, subject only to directives by principals or other school officials.  Teachers should always make themselves aware of the range of religious beliefs (or nonbelief) that exists in their classes and should make decisions about religion accordingly.  A good teacher will not want to offend the religious sensitivities of any child in her classroom. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May a teacher interact with students regarding religion while away from the school campus?

A teacher does not forfeit his right to engage in religious activities on his own time, away from the school campus.  Teachers may not be prohibited from attending church, even if one or more of their students attend the same church.  Away from the school, the teacher may attend religious activities with his students, may lead his students to Christ, or teach them in a Sunday school class, at which time the teacher is free to discuss all religious matters with them, including devotionals and proselytizing.  The teacher may also serve as a church youth leader outside of school time, even if his own students are part of the youth group.  When a teacher is not actually on contract time for the school, the restrictions of the Establishment Clause do not apply. While a teacher may not invite students during his contract time to attend church or other religious activities, the teacher may contact the student’s parents on his own time to invite the student or the parent to church.  The teacher should make clear that the invitation is being extended on a personal level and not in his capacity as the child’s teacher.  The teacher should also make clear that the parent’s or child’s reaction to the invitation (whether positive or negative) will have no bearing in class.  Anytime a teacher interacts with his students on a religious level away from school, the teacher should make certain the student understands the teacher is not acting as a representative of the school, but is acting as a private individual. Teachers need to be very careful, however, even when engaging in such interaction away from school since some courts have said that a school may prohibit such interaction. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May teachers give their personal viewpoint in answer to a student’s questions about religion?

Teachers are always permitted to teach about religion or to answer students’ questions (either in or out of class) about religion as long as they do so in an objective, neutral, and academic manner.  Such religious interchanges with students must always be age-appropriate and must be for pedagogical rather than for proselytizing purposes.  When engaging in such discussions, the Christian Law Association (CLA) advises teachers that students should not be able to discern the faith of the teacher.  Even questions about salvation may be answered in an objective manner that does not indicate that the teacher shares that belief. While it seems logical that teachers should be permitted to discuss their own personal viewpoints (including their religious viewpoints) with students both inside and outside the classroom, the law has moved in the past few decades in a different direction that considers such sharing to be an unconstitutional government imposition (or establishment) of a particular religion. This movement in the law can, therefore, be interpreted to mean that while teachers may have opportunities to share their religious viewpoints during class time or during private conversations with students, teachers do not have a right to do so.  If a teacher knows her students, their families, the community, the school board, and her superiors well, and knows for a certainty that such sharing about personal religious viewpoints would be universally welcome, it is probably not risky to engage in such sharing.  On the other hand, if any of these variables might not support such sharing about religion, doing so could be a risky undertaking for the teacher. A teacher must be willing to risk losing her job if she engages in such personal sharing about her faith with students. Generally, problems arise when wither students or parents complain to school administrators about personal religious exchanges between teachers and students. A teacher would likely have no legal recourse if fired for sharing personal religious view points with students, particularly in violation of a specific controlling school policy.  If there is no school policy and there are no complaints, principals have a great deal of discretion as to what they will permit teachers to do in the classroom with respect to religion. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May teachers pray privately with students outside of class?

Teachers should not pray with students in school.  If a teacher believes a student needs prayer or if a student directly asks the teacher to pray for him, the teacher should arrange to meet the student away from the school campus.  The student’s parent should be notified that the teacher intends to respond to the student in this manner and should be asked to give consent.  The teacher could meet with the student for such a purpose at a church or at a neutral location such as a fast food restaurant near the school property. Teachers have been fired for praying with students in school.  For example, in one case where a close friend of a student had died and the student requested prayer after class, the teacher was fired for accommodating the student’s request and praying with her.  Another teacher was fired because she encouraged her elementary school student to pray on their own before going to lunch.  If fired for praying with a student at school, the teacher would have no legal recourse. In considering the appropriateness of praying with students in school, consider the matter turned upside-down.  Place yourself in the role of a parent with a child in the public school.  Imagine that your child approached a teacher who practiced the Wiccan religion and asked the teacher to cast a spell on her behalf.  Would you be concerned if the school permitted such interaction without your express consent? —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May teachers wear religious clothing or jewelry in the classroom?

In contrast to a student’s nearly universal right to wear religious jewelry or clothing with religious messages in school, a teacher is more limited, particularly with respect to clothing choices.  Generally, a school district may prohibit a teacher from wearing religious garb or clothing with religious messages in order to promote an atmosphere of neutrality about religion in the public school classroom.  On the other hand, teachers may wear such religious jewelry as cross necklaces or angel pins in the classroom.  The Christian Law Association (CLA) generally advises that if a jewelry item can be purchased at a department store jewelry counter, it may be worn since its use would not then be limited to religious purposes.  Many “rock” stars who are not Christians like to wear cross jewelry on stage, for instance. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May teachers communicate with other school personnel about religion either in conversations or in writing?

Teachers have the right while in school to express themselves to fellow employees as long as such communication takes place in the faculty room or otherwise out of hearing of students.  The Establishment Clause is not violated when school personnel communicate between themselves about religion; it can only be violated when they communicate improperly with students about religion.  Teachers who share religious convictions may always have private conversations about religion with other employees or pray together so as long as students are not included and cannot overhear their conversation or prayer. Teachers must use this free expression right wisely, being careful not to express themselves to other employees who do not welcome such religious interaction.  As in all workplaces, once a fellow-employee tells a teacher that his religious communication is unwelcome, his continued religious communication with at employee could be considered harassment.  If a teacher’s religious substantially disruptive to the work environment, he could be prohibited from such religious expression.  All school staff, including bus drivers, have the same rights and restrictions as teachers with regard to students and other personnel. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May teachers post inspirational messages from the Bible on faculty-only bulletin boards?

It would be viewpoint discrimination in violation of First Amendment rights of free speech if other school personnel were permitted to display items of general interest or encouragement on a faculty bulletin board, but religious messages were prohibited.  The only exception to his general legal principle would be if the bulletin board were in a location where it was visible to students.  However, school officials may declare a bulletin board off-limits for all but school-related items. Similarly, if there is a place not visible to students where teachers are free to leave reading material to share with others, religious material may not be singled out for prohibition.  If other teachers do not want to read religious material, they are free to leave it alone. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May a teacher keep a personal Bible or other religious material on her desk?

A teacher may not keep a personal Bible or other religious material on her desk if they are not being used as part of an objective and neutral academic curriculum.  The teacher may also be prohibited from reading a Bible during free reading times in the classroom while students are present.  Courts have ruled that a teacher would violate the Establishment Clause by this overt expression of a particular religion.  However, the teacher could keep a personal Bible in her desk drawer or in some other location out of sight of the students and could read the Bible during times when students are not present in the classroom. Teachers may not keep Bibles in a classroom library unless the Bibles are included with other religious texts (such as the Koran) as a small part of a general classroom library the students may consult for academic purposes.  Similarly, a teacher should not display religious material in the classroom unless it is directly related to the curriculum and is not either devotional or proselytizing in nature. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

What free speech and free exercise rights do teachers still retain in public schools?

The United States Supreme Court has held that neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights (including their free speech and free exercise rights) at the schoolhouse door.  However, as applied to school staff and teachers, courts have only upheld these rights in public schools with respect to other school personnel, not to teacher communications with students.  Just as in other government workplaces, the school may control a teacher’s speech in front of students (who are the “customers” or “clients” of the government’s education business).  Courts have determined that Establishment Clause considerations generally trump a teacher’s free speech and free exercise rights when the two conflict.  Since the teacher is an agent of the government while on school property, anything the teacher says concerning religion can be attributed to the government and can become an unconstitutional establishment of religion. When teachers communicate with other employees, they enjoy all the free exercise rights of other government employees as controlled by the legal principles described in the Religious Guidelines for Federal Employees. [Highlight Religious Guidelines for Federal Employees and make a hyperlink with content at end of all this. What is the link?] —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

May teachers hold faculty Bible studies or prayer groups in public schools?

As government employees, teachers are free to practice their faith at appropriate times while on the job. Because of Establishment Clause concerns, however, teachers may not exercise this right with or in the presence of students. Teachers who wish to pray or engage in other group religious activities must do so outside the presence of students. Teachers have free speech rights to conduct their won prayer and Bible study with their fellow teachers and/or parents. Such free speech rights may be exercised only when no students are present. Teachers and school staff must be permitted to form prayer and Bible study groups among themselves and use the faculty room for such a meeting if other groups are permitted to organize and use the faculty room (or other location) for nonreligious, nonwork-related gatherings. In fact, the school would be interfering with the free speech rights of the teachers if it prohibited them from meeting together for this purpose merely because their activity was religious. The United States Supreme Court has held that prayer and other types of religious activity are a form of free speech protected by the Constitution. meeting, they must be careful to let other employees know that their participation or lack of it Teachers should be careful not to draw the attention of students to such religiously oriented meetings. Finally, if a teacher (or other supervisory personnel) participates in the in the religious meetings, will not affect their job with respect to hiring, promotion, or termination. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

An overview of your religious rights as teachers, administrators, and other school staff.

Under current law, public school teachers, staff and officials have First Amendment free speech and free exercise rights only with respect to other school personnel, not with respect to students.  Teachers, as agents of the state in a government school, are prohibited by current Supreme Court Establishment Clause legal analysis (often popularly referred to as the “the doctrine of the separation of church and state”) from sharing their religious beliefs with students.  However, teachers continue to have free speech and free exercise rights as employees within their government-operated workplaces (the school).  These rights include the right to engage in religious expression with other employees of the school.  Religious exchanges between school employees, however, should always take place out of sight of students. Teachers are considered to be agents of the government when they are present on the school campus and interacting with students.  Therefore, anything they say regarding religion is attributable to the government and can be a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause, which prohibits an establishment of religion by the government (and now requires complete “separation of church and state”). Given this relatively new legal climate, many teachers and other school personnel are unclear about how much of their faith they can share with students. Christian teachers who have been teaching for many years are often perplexed with typical interactions they have have had for years with students about religion are now suddenly declared unconstitutional.  When they are reprimanded by their superiors in the school system, they are often shocked to discover that they have done something wrong. While courts the said that neither teachers nor students lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door, students are permitted a great deal more religious liberty in public school than are teachers or other school officials. While teachers in America were originally presumed to be agents (or extensions or representatives) of the parents, the situation changed in the mid-twentieth century as courts began to permit the government to exert more and more control over schools. In today’s America, a teacher in public school is considered to be an agent (or extension or representative) of the government rather than of the parent. As a representative of the state, a teacher must remain totally religion-neutral with students in school or risk a legal reprimand for violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause, which courts say does not permit the government to favor one religion over others. These legal restrictions on teacher-student interactions about religion are a double-edged sword for parents.  Communities are no longer uniformly Christian, and many public school teachers are no longer Christian.  The religious beliefs of some students will always be compromised if teachers or other school personnel are permitted to promote their own faith with their students. Ultimately, all education is religious at its core, however.  When Christianity is no longer the dominant faith in school, the result is that other religions or no religion will be the message given to students.  That is one reason why CLA believes so strongly that Christian parents, whenever possible, should make every effort to educate their children in a Christian environment. On the other hand, CLA also supports the many Christian teachers who feel called to the public schools to reach students who receive no religious training at home.  Such dedicated servants of God must learn to successfully navigate the turbulent waters of current legal requirements for public school teachers. —Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008

To submit legal questions to the Christian Law Association, visit and use the CLA contact form.

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