DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
"...Schools do more than train children's
minds. They also help to nurture their souls by reinforcing the values they
learn at home and in their communities. I believe that one of the best ways we
can help out schools to do this is by supporting students' rights to
voluntarily practice their religious beliefs, including prayer in schools....
For more than 200 years, the First Amendment has protected our religious
freedom and allowed many faiths to flourish in our homes, in our work place
and in our schools. Clearly understood and sensibly applied, it works."
May 30, 1998
Dear American Educator,
Almost three years ago, President Clinton directed me, as U.S. Secretary of
Education, in consultation with the Attorney General, to provide every public
school district in America with a statement of principles addressing the extent
to which religious expression and activity are permitted in our public schools.
In accordance with the President's directive, I sent every school superintendent
in the country guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools in
August of 1995.
The purpose of promulgating these presidential guidelines was to end much of
the confusion regarding religious expression in our nation's public schools that
had developed over more than thirty years since the U.S. Supreme Court decision
in 1962 regarding state sponsored school prayer. I believe that these guidelines
have helped school officials, teachers, students and parents find a new common
ground on the important issue of religious freedom consistent with
In July of 1996, for example, the Saint Louis School Board adopted a district
wide policy using these guidelines. While the school district had previously
allowed certain religious activities, it had never spelled them out before,
resulting in a lawsuit over the right of a student to pray before lunch in the
cafeteria. The creation of a clearly defined policy using the guidelines allowed
the school board and the family of the student to arrive at a mutually
In a case decided last year in a United States District Court in Alabama, (Chandler
v. James) involving student initiated prayer at school related events, the
court instructed the DeKalb County School District to maintain for circulation
in the library of each school a copy of the presidential guidelines.
The great advantage of the presidential guidelines, however, is that they
allow school districts to avoid contentious disputes by developing a common
understanding among students, teachers, parents and the broader community that
the First Amendment does in fact provide ample room for religious expression by
students while at the same time maintaining freedom from government sponsored
The development and use of these presidential guidelines were not and are not
isolated activities. Rather, these guidelines are part of an ongoing and growing
effort by educators and America's religious community to find a new common
ground. In April of 1995, for example, thirty-five religious groups issued
"Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law"
that the Department drew from in developing its own guidelines. Following the
release of the presidential guidelines, the National PTA and the Freedom Forum
jointly published in 1996 "A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public
Schools" which put the guidelines into an easily understandable question
and answer format.
In the last two years, I have held three religious-education summits to
inform faith communities and educators about the guidelines and to encourage
continued dialogue and cooperation within constitutional limits. Many religious
communities have contacted local schools and school systems to offer their
assistance because of the clarity provided by the guidelines. The United
Methodist Church has provided reading tutors to many schools, and Hadassah and
the Women's League for Conservative Judaism have both been extremely active in
providing local schools with support for summer reading programs.
The guidelines we are releasing today are the same as originally issued in
1995, except that changes have been made in the sections on religious excusals
and student garb to reflect the Supreme Court decision in Boerne v. Flores
declaring the Religious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional as applied to
actions of state and local governments.
These guidelines continue to reflect two basic and equally important
obligations imposed on public school officials by the First Amendment. First,
schools may not forbid students acting on their own from expressing their
personal religious views or beliefs solely because they are of a religious
nature. Schools may not discriminate against private religious expression by
students, but must instead give students the same right to engage in religious
activity and discussion as they have to engage in other comparable activity.
Generally, this means that students may pray in a nondisruptive manner during
the school day when they are not engaged in school activities and instruction,
subject to the same rules of order that apply to other student speech.
At the same time, schools may not endorse religious activity or doctrine, nor
may they coerce participation in religious activity. Among other things, of
course, school administrators and teachers may not organize or encourage prayer
exercises in the classroom. Teachers, coaches and other school officials who act
as advisors to student groups must remain mindful that they cannot engage in or
lead the religious activities of students.
And the right of religious expression in school does not include the right to
have a "captive audience" listen, or to compel other students to
participate. School officials should not permit student religious speech to turn
into religious harassment aimed at a student or a small group of students.
Students do not have the right to make repeated invitations to other students to
participate in religious activity in the face of a request to stop.
The statement of principles set forth below derives from the First Amendment.
Implementation of these principles, of course, will depend on specific factual
contexts and will require careful consideration in particular cases.
In issuing these revised guidelines I encourage every school district to make
sure that principals, teachers, students and parents are familiar with their
content. To that end I offer three suggestions:
First, school districts should use these guidelines to revise or develop
their own district wide policy regarding religious expression. In developing
such a policy, school officials can engage parents, teachers, the various faith
communities and the broader community in a positive dialogue to define a common
ground that gives all parties the assurance that when questions do arise
regarding religious expression the community is well prepared to apply these
guidelines to specific cases. The Davis County School District in Farmington,
Utah,is an example of a school district that has taken the affirmative step of
developing such a policy.
At a time of increasing religious diversity in our country such a proactive
step can help school districts create a framework of civility that reaffirms and
strengthens the community consensus regarding religious liberty. School
districts that do not make the effort to develop their own policy may find
themselves unprepared for the intensity of the debate that can engage a
community when positions harden around a live controversy involving religious
expression in public schools.
Second, I encourage principals and administrators to take the additional step
of making sure that teachers, so often on the front line of any dispute
regarding religious expression, are fully informed about the guidelines. The
Gwinnett County School system in Georgia, for example, begins every school year
with workshops for teachers that include the distribution of these presidential
guidelines. Our nation's schools of education can also do their part by ensuring
that prospective teachers are knowledgeable about religious expression in the
Third, I encourage schools to actively take steps to inform parents and
students about religious expression in school using these guidelines. The Carter
County School District in Elizabethton, Tennessee, included the subject of
religious expression in a character education program that it developed in the
fall of 1997. This effort included sending home to every parent a copy of the
"Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools."
Help is available for those school districts that seek to develop policies on
religious expression. I have enclosed a list of associations and groups that can
provide information to school districts and parents who seek to learn more about
religious expression in our nation's public schools.
In addition, citizens can turn to the U.S. Department of Education web site (http://www.ed.gov)
for information about the guidelines and other activities of the Department that
support the growing effort of educators and religious communities to support the
education of our nation's children.
Finally, I encourage teachers and principals to see the First Amendment as
something more than a piece of dry, old parchment locked away in the national
attic gathering dust. It is a vital living principle, a call to action, and a
demand that each generation reaffirm its connection to the basic idea that is
America -- that we are a free people who protect our freedoms by respecting the
freedom of others who differ from us.
Our history as a nation reflects the history of the Puritan, the Quaker, the
Baptist, the Catholic, the Jew and many others fleeing persecution to find
religious freedom in America. The United States remains the most successful
experiment in religious freedom that the world has ever known because the First
Amendment uniquely balances freedom of private religious belief and expression
with freedom from state-imposed religious expression.
Public schools can neither foster religion nor preclude it. Our public
schools must treat religion with fairness and respect and vigorously protect
religious expression as well as the freedom of conscience of all other students.
In so doing our public schools reaffirm the First Amendment and enrich the lives
of their students.
I encourage you to share this information widely and in the most appropriate
manner with your school community. Please accept my sincere thanks for your
continuing work on behalf of all of America's children.
Richard W. Riley
U.S. Secretary of Education
RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Student prayer and religious discussion: The Establishment Clause of
the First Amendment does not prohibit purely private religious speech by
students. Students therefore have the same right to engage in individual or
group prayer and religious discussion during the school day as they do to engage
in other comparable activity. For example, students may read their Bibles or
other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray before tests to the same
extent they may engage in comparable nondisruptive activities. Local school
authorities possess substantial discretion to impose rules of order and other
pedagogical restrictions on student activities, but they may not structure or
administer such rules to discriminate against religious activity or speech.
Generally, students may pray in a nondisruptive manner when not engaged in
school activities or instruction, and subject to the rules that normally pertain
in the applicable setting. Specifically, students in informal settings, such as
cafeterias and hallways, may pray and discuss their religious views with each
other, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other student activities
and speech. Students may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers
about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics. School
officials, however, should intercede to stop student speech that constitutes
harassment aimed at a student or a group of students.
Students may also participate in before or after school events with religious
content, such as "see you at the flag pole" gatherings, on the same
terms as they may participate in other noncurriculum activities on school
premises. School officials may neither discourage nor encourage participation in
such an event.
The right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion free from
discrimination does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or
to compel other students to participate. Teachers and school administrators
should ensure that no student is in any way coerced to participate in religious
Graduation prayer and baccalaureates: Under current Supreme Court
decisions, school officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation,
nor organize religious baccalaureate ceremonies. If a school generally opens its
facilities to private groups, it must make its facilities available on the same
terms to organizers of privately sponsored religious baccalaureate services. A
school may not extend preferential treatment to baccalaureate ceremonies and may
in some instances be obliged to disclaim official endorsement of such
Official neutrality regarding religious activity: Teachers and school
administrators, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the
state and are prohibited by the establishment clause from soliciting or
encouraging religious activity, and from participating in such activity with
students. Teachers and administrators also are prohibited from discouraging
activity because of its religious content, and from soliciting or encouraging
Teaching about religion: Public schools may not provide religious
instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or
other scripture: the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or
other scripture)-as-literature, and the role of religion in the history of the
United States and other countries all are permissible public school subjects.
Similarly, it is permissible to consider religious influences on art, music,
literature, and social studies. Although public schools may teach about
religious holidays, including their religious aspects, and may celebrate the
secular aspects of holidays, schools may not observe holidays as religious
events or promote such observance by students.
Student assignments: Students may express their beliefs about religion
in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of
discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Such home
and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance
and relevance, and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by
Religious literature: Students have a right to distribute religious
literature to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to
distribute other literature that is unrelated to school curriculum or
activities. Schools may impose the same reasonable time, place, and manner or
other constitutional restrictions on distribution of religious literature as
they do on nonschool literature generally, but they may not single out religious
literature for special regulation.
Religious excusals: Subject to applicable State laws, schools enjoy
substantial discretion to excuse individual students from lessons that are
objectionable to the student or the students' parents on religious or other
conscientious grounds. However, students generally do not have a Federal right
to be excused from lessons that may be inconsistent with their religious beliefs
or practices. School officials may neither encourage nor discourage students
from availing themselves of an excusal option.
Released time: Subject to applicable State laws, schools have the
discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided
that schools do not encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who
do not attend. Schools may not allow religious instruction by outsiders on
school premises during the school day.
Teaching values: Though schools must be neutral with respect to
religion, they may play an active role with respect to teaching civic values and
virtue, and the moral code that holds us together as a community. The fact that
some of these values are held also by religions does not make it unlawful to
teach them in school.
Student garb: Schools enjoy substantial discretion in adopting
policies relating to student dress and school uniforms. Students generally have
no Federal right to be exempted from religiously-neutral and generally
applicable school dress rules based on their religious beliefs or practices;
however, schools may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a
particular religion, for prohibition or regulation. Students may display
religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are
permitted to display other comparable messages. Religious messages may not be
singled out for suppression, but rather are subject to the same rules as
generally apply to comparable messages.
THE EQUAL ACCESS ACT
The Equal Access Act is designed to ensure that, consistent with the First
Amendment, student religious activities are accorded the same access to public
school facilities as are student secular activities. Based on decisions of the
Federal courts, as well as its interpretations of the Act, the Department of
Justice has advised that the Act should be interpreted as providing, among other
General provisions: Student religious groups at public secondary
schools have the same right of access to school facilities as is enjoyed by
other comparable student groups. Under the Equal Access Act, a school receiving
Federal funds that allows one or more student noncurriculum-related clubs to
meet on its premises during noninstructional time may not refuse access to
student religious groups.
Prayer services and worship exercises covered: A meeting, as defined
and protected by the Equal Access Act, may include a prayer service, Bible
reading, or other worship exercise.
Equal access to means of publicizing meetings: A school receiving
Federal funds must allow student groups meeting under the Act to use the school
media -- including the public address system, the school newspaper, and the
school bulletin board -- to announce their meetings on the same terms as other
noncurriculum-related student groups are allowed to use the school media. Any
policy concerning the use of school media must be applied to all noncurriculum-related
student groups in a nondiscriminatory matter. Schools, however, may inform
students that certain groups are not school sponsored.
Lunch-time and recess covered: A school creates a limited open forum
under the Equal Access Act, triggering equal access rights for religious groups,
when it allows students to meet during their lunch periods or other
noninstructional time during the school day, as well as when it allows students
to meet before and after the school day.
Revised May 1998