American Civil Liberties Union Briefer ASK SYBIL LIBERTY
Sybil says: SPEAK OUT! ORGANIZE! GET INVOLVED!
We spend a big part of our life in school, so . . .let's make a difference --
* join the student government
* attend school board meetings
* petition the school administration.
* debate among yourselves
YOUR RIGHT TO
Students, listen up:
An important part of our education is learning how to participate fully in
the life of this nation. In order to participate, we need to keep in mind
two very important things. First, the Constitution is the highest law of
this land. Second, the Constitution has a Bill of Rights that protects the
freedoms of each and every American. That includes you and me, the young
people of this country. So my message to you is KNOW YOUR RIGHTS and
EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS.
Religious liberty Ä the right of each and every American to practice his or
her own religion, or no religion at all Ä is among the most fundamental of
the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The principle of religious
liberty, because it is built into our Constitution, has kept the United
States relatively free of the kind of religious conflict that has torn many
nations apart. The founders of this country, who were themselves of
different religious beliefs and backgrounds, thought that the best way to
protect religious liberty in their new nation was to keep the government out
of religion. That's why they created the First Amendment. In addition to
guaranteeing free speech and a free press, the First Amendment says that the
"... shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . ."
Both parts of this guarantee of religious liberty, the Establishment Clause
and the Free Exercise Clause, apply to public schools since public schools
are part of the government (they don't apply to private and parochial
The Establishment Clause guarantees the separation of church and state by
prohibiting the government from supporting or promoting religion in any way.
The government can't "establish" Christianity or any other religion as the
official religion of the United States; it can't provide financial support
for any religion, and it can't promote or endorse any religious beliefs or
practices. The Free Exercise Clause means that you are free to worship as
you choose, and that the government can't penalize you because of your
In a series of decisions dating back to the early 1960s, the courts have
created the following constitutional standards that public schools are
supposed to respect when it comes to religion:
Schools cannot plan or sponsor religious observances or prayers.
Schools cannot promote religious beliefs or practices as part of the
curriculum, but they can teach about the roles and influences of religion in
history, literature and philosophy.
Students are free to pray on their own or otherwise express their religious
beliefs in school, so long as they don't cause a disruption in class.
Students can be excused from some school activities Ä but not from academic
courses Ä if those activities conflict with their religious beliefs. For
example, if you're a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who oppose saluting
the flag, then you can't be forced to salute the flag.
Sybil, Can teachers start off the school day with a prayer, a reading from
the scriptures or a moment of silence?
No, they can't. The Supreme Court has ruled that prayers, scriptural
readings and even moments of silence are unconstitutional in public schools
because they amount to government promotion of a religious belief or
practice. Even if the school has described the prayer as
"non-denominational," the government is still promoting religion in violation
of the First Amendment.
Can my school invite a member of the clergy to give a nonsectarian
prayer at graduation?
Prayers at graduations used to be common, but in 1992 the Supreme Court ruled
that the practice violates the Establishment Clause because it forces all
graduating students, including non-believers, to participate in a
government-sponsored religious exercise. This important ruling came in a
case called Lee v. Weisman. The Court explained that including a prayer in
the graduation ceremony, whether the prayer was led by a minister, a priest
or a rabbi, would give any student who objected "a reasonable perception that
she is being forced by the State to pray in a manner her conscience will not
allow." That's exactly what the First Amendment is supposed to prevent.
Is it constitutional if students vote to have a student-led prayer at
No, it isn't. Think about it: Letting students make the decision to have a
student deliver a prayer doesn't make the graduation ceremony any less a
school-sponsored event, does it? And while a majority of students may vote
to pray in a certain way, the minority of students who hold different
beliefs, or no religious beliefs at all, will feel excluded from their own
graduation exercises. The thing to understand is that where fundamental
freedoms, like freedom of speech and freedom of religion, are concerned, the
principle of "majority rule" doesn't apply. Those freedoms belong to each of
us no matter what Ä they cannot be voted away.
Could my school hold a separate graduation event, like a baccalaureate, for
students who want to pray?
The school itself could not sponsor such an alternative event, but student,
parent or church groups could Ä off of school grounds.
Is it ever okay to pray in school?
Sure. Individual students have the right to pray whenever they want to, as
long as they don't disrupt classroom instruction or other educational
activities. For example, a student can say grace before eating lunch or pray
before taking an exam. If a school official has told you that you can't pray
at all during the school day, then your free speech and free exercise rights
are being violated and you should contact your local ACLU for help.
Other than the standards you mentioned before, is there anything else school
officials can turn to for constitutional guidance regarding religion?
Actually, there is. In instances where school officials aren't quite sure
about a policy they have adopted or are considering, they can give it the
"Lemon Test," which takes its name from a 1971 Supreme Court decision in a
case called Lemon v. Kurtzman. A public school policy that fails any one of
the following three parts of the Lemon Test is unconstitutional.
The policy must have a non-religious purpose. Example: In 1985, the U.S.
Supreme Court struck down Alabama's moment-of-silence law because the whole
point of the law was to encourage prayer, which is a clearly religious
The policy must not have the effect of promoting or favoring any set of
religious beliefs. For example, putting up a Christmas display in school
that includes such religious symbols as a creche sends a message that the
school prefers students whose religions celebrate Christmas over other
The policy must not overly "entangle" the school with religion. Suppose some
graduating seniors and their parents decided to hold a religious
baccalaureate service before graduation exercises at a local church, and the
school principal took it upon him - or herself to review the content of the
service ahead of time. That would "excessively entangle" the school with
religious matters beyond what the constitution allows.
My school often holds holiday parties. Is that constitutional?
It depends. A holiday event that includes making Christmas stockings, Easter
eggs or valentines is probably okay because, while those activities used to
be associated with a religious tradition, over the years they've become
secular customs that young people of many different backgrounds enjoy. But
a Nativity pageant, which is full of religious meaning, or a school concert
that featured only religious music would be unconstitutional.
Some people distribute Bibles at my school every year. Is that
No. The distribution of Bibles during the school day definitely violates the
Establishment Clause. Even if teachers don't actually participate in handing
out the Bibles, and even if the Bibles are not used as part of the school's
educational program, the public school building or grounds are still being
used to spread religious doctrine at a time when students are required to be
Can I organize a Bible club at school?
Yes, the Supreme Court has ruled that student-organized Bible clubs are
allowed if several conditions are met. First, the activity must take place
during non-school hours; Bible club or prayer meetings during regular school
hours would violate the Establishment Clause. Second, the school must make
its facilities available to all student groups on an equal basis. If your
Bible club is the only group allowed to have access to the school grounds,
then that violates the Establishment Clause. Vice versa, if the school lets
other student groups use the building for meetings and events but won't grant
your Bible club the same privilege, then your right to free speech is being
violated. Third, school officials cannot have anything to do with organizing
or running the Bible club.
MEET SOME REAL-LIFE SYBIL LIBERTIES
Demanding that your school respect constitutional principles takes courage
and conviction. Rules and practices that don't respect the rights of
everyone are often supported by a majority of students, teachers or parents,
and going against the grain of any majority can be very difficult. Meet some
students who had the courage to defend the Constitution by taking a stand
against school practices they believed to be wrong.
My name is Sarah E. Coles. In the summer of 1992 when I was 14, the school
board in Cleveland, Ohio, where I live, invited me to attend a meeting to be
recognized for the high scores I had gotten on a standardized test. I felt
really proud of myself.
I took a seat at the meeting, expecting that it would begin with something
like a welcome. Instead, it began with a prayer.
I was shocked. Prayers at a school board meeting? I couldn't believe it.
In the middle of the prayer, I found myself saying out loud, "What's going on
here? They aren't supposed to be doing this at a board of education
We learned at school about the separation of church and state. We were
taught that all people have the right to believe in their own way, as long as
it doesn't harm others. Isn't it important that the school system respect
the Constitution that it teaches us to respect?
As I sat there at the meeting, I thought: What if I were a Buddhist or a
Muslim? How would it feel to be invited to a meeting, only to be offended by
your host? The board ought to stop opening its meetings with prayers, I
thought, and instead make the meetings free of barriers and open to all.
Together with others who felt as I did, I asked the board to drop the prayer
from its meetings, but they said they wouldn't. We then consulted with our
local ACLU. With the ACLU's help, we filed a lawsuit against the school
board, asking for an end to the practice. The Cleveland Plain Dealer
published a statement I wrote about the issue.
Our case is still pending, but whatever the outcome I believe the school
board ought to live by what it teaches.
Hi, I'm Deborah Weisman. My involvement with the issue of church/state
separation began in 1986 when my older sister, Merith, was graduating from
junior high in Providence, Rhode Island. I'll never forget how uncomfortable
I felt when a Baptist minister led us in a prayer at the ceremony. I had
always felt that religion is important and has its place, but I didn't think
a public school was that place. My parents sent the school a letter that was
Three years later, just before my own eighth grade graduation, my parents
called the school to bring up the prayer issue again. A teacher told them,
"We got you a rabbi." They thought we objected to the minister just because
we're Jewish! But a rabbi wouldn't have made it any better: Prayer in public
school was what we objected to. The school board told us that graduation
prayer was a tradition. If we had a problem with the practice, they said, we
could sue. And that's just what we did. The ACLU of Rhode Island
assigned us a lawyer, who asked the federal court to order the school board
to stop having graduation prayers. The court ruled in our favor, the school
board appealed, we won again, and the school board appealed again Ä this
time to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court hears less than five
percent of the cases brought before it, so we were surprised when it agreed
to hear our case.
Almost three years after my eighth grade graduation and nine days after my
high school commencement (where there was no prayer), we won: When a public
school sponsors a prayer of any faith, the Supreme Court said, it violates
the First Amendment.
Throughout the years of waiting for a ruling, we were harassed by hate mail
and even death threats, and the media attention often bothered me. But I was
encouraged by the support we received from friends, and at no time did I
regret having taken our case to court. What amazes me is that it only took
me and my family to make a difference.
Josh Berger is my name. I'm from Rensselaer, Indiana. When I was ten and in
the fifth grade, my dad wrote a letter to my school complaining about the
fact that the Gideon Society distributed Bibles in the school every year. The
Gideons are very up front about wanting to convert people to their type of
Christianity. My family is an interfaith family Ä my dad is Jewish and my
mother is Protestant Ä so they're very particular about the kind of religious
teaching they want for me and my sister. Although I usually go with my mom
to the church where she's an elder, religion is a personal matter in our
My dad expected that his complaint would settle things. He never thought he
would have to go to court. But when the school responded in a hostile way,
he went to the ACLU for help in filing suit. At the trial, the school
superintendent testified that the school wasn't really pushing any type of
religion by letting the Gideons distribute their Bibles because, she said,
anyone could walk into the school and pass out religious materials if they
wanted to. My mom, who's a teacher in the school district, knew that wasn't
true. She knew the school officials would not have allowed any other kinds
of religious materials to be distributed. Two older kids who are friends of
mine testified for our side.
Even though our town is a rural place where people don't like to make waves,
many of the neighbors, teachers and churchpeople supported us. None of the
kids stopped being friends with me, even though some of their parents
disagreed with us.
We won our lawsuit. After the federal district court ruled in favor of the
school, the appellate court overturned that ruling and agreed with us that
the Bible distribution was unconstitutional. Since the U.S. Supreme Court
refused the school's request to review the case, our victory stands.
Knowing your rights and helping to educate others about theirs are proven
ways of protecting religious liberty for all. For more information, contact
your local ACLU.
To obtain the following materials, send your name, address and check/money
order to ACLU Dept. L, PO Box 794, Medford, NY 11763.
"America's Constitutional Heritage: Religion and Our Public Schools" - A
35-minute video (VHS) about religious freedom in the U.S. that features the
stories of students and their families. $20.00
The Rights of Students - A 181-page ACLU handbook. $6.95
The Establishment Clause and Public Schools: A Legal Bulletin. $2.00
A C L U
Produced by the Public Education Department
American Civil Liberties Union
132 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036