Student religious practices

September 16, 2002

In 1995, President Bill Clinton sent material containing guidelines on student religious expression to every school district in the United States. The letter accompanying these guidelines declared:

“Nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door. While the government may not use schools to coerce the consciences of our students, or to convey official endorsement of religion, the public schools also may not discriminate against private religious expression during the school day.

“Religion is too important in our history and our heritage for us to keep it out of our schools … . [I]t shouldn’t be demanded, but as long as it is not sponsored by school officials and doesn’t interfere with other children’s rights, it mustn’t be denied.”

The Bush administration updated these guidelines in 2003 and attached a warning — schools not complying are in danger of losing their federal funding.

In response to these federal efforts and a recognition of the religious diversity all schools now face, many districts are working to inform administrators and teachers about the religious practices of their students. Knowledge about students’ religious needs and requirements promotes understanding between parents and school officials and prepares teachers for questions or concerns when they arise.

Adherence to religious requirements such as special diet or dress is the responsibility of parents and students, not of the public school. In some cases, however, parents may request special accommodation (e.g., excusal from participation in certain school parties or events). Most of these requests may be easily granted without disrupting the educational work of the school.

In rare cases, requests for accommodation may be impossible to grant fully for practical or constitutional reasons. Even in these instances, some accommodation may be offered. For example, schools are unable to prepare special foods for some religious needs, but they can label foods and offer a variety of choices. When considering these requests, school officials must be mindful of the First Amendment and treat claims of religious conscience seriously and sensitively without putting the school in the position of endorsing or sponsoring religion.

Finally, parents are recognized as having the primary responsibility for the upbringing of their children, including their education. For this reason, parents need to be fully informed about school policies and practices, including all issues concerning religion and religious liberty in public education.