Yes, Virginia, Religion IS Permitted in Public Schools

SchoolThe NCLL has been defending religious liberty in America’s public schools for many years. What is most distressing to us is the fact that so many Christian public school administrators refuse to allow appropriate religious expression in public schools out of fear of a backlash from one or two people or lawsuits by legal groups that are openly hostile to religion, particularly Christianity.

Communities can support these Christian public school administrators in two ways:

  1. You can let teachers, administrators, and school board members know that you appreciate their willingness to support appropriate Christian expression in your school.
  2. You can get involved in school board elections—if a majority of school board members support appropriate religious expression in public schools, such expression will be protected, as will those school administrators who permit it.

These two steps are not difficult, but they do require Christians to take the time and energy to become involved in their community schools. Remember that the local school board hires the school superintendent, who hires the principals and the teachers. The school board also chooses the local curriculum and develops local school policies that will either support or prohibit appropriate religious expression in the public schools, in addition to keeping out practices that will harm our children. Finally, every school board hires its own local attorney, a person who will either educate the board and school officials about appropriate religious expression in public schools or contribute to the fear that many school officials now have of allowing such expression.

Last week, for instance, the NCLL was honored to assist local Christians who had been providing voluntary character-building assemblies in local schools for many years. When a new principal was hired, she was fearful of continuing this perfectly legal practice. Adding to the problem was the fact that a few anti-Christian activists began to post negative comments about these assemblies on social media.

We were able to point out to these school officials that it is perfectly legal for religious groups to be included in such public school character-building assemblies, particularly when these assemblies are voluntary for students and do not include any overt proselytizing or promotion of any one particular religious sect over others. 

Our attorneys provided the school with a document titled “Religious Guidelines for Public Schools,” available since the 1990s after being issued by President Bill Clinton and the US Department of Education. While school officials should be very aware of this document, unfortunately, national teachers’ unions and school board associations tend to keep this sort of information under wraps and instead promote a liberal agenda for public schools that prohibits anything that even comes close to allowing religious expression, particularly Christianity.

The truth, however, is the exact opposite. The religious guidelines state that it is perfectly legal and appropriate to teach traditional values in America’s schools. This is what the guidelines say:

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.

If you would like to have a copy of the religious guidelines document for yourself or for your local school administrators, please contact the NCLL office. In addition, the NCLL has published a book titled Making Sense of Religion in Public Schools, which is available on or from the NCLL office. This book would also make an excellent gift for your local school board members, teachers, or administrators. The book is in a Q&A format, making it very simple to look up specific questions within one of four categories: (1) Religious Rights of Students, (2) Religious Rights of Teachers, 3) Religion in the Curriculum, and (4) Religious Contributions by the Community. 

As the United States Supreme Court stated in the case of Board of Educ. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990), the government (which includes government schools) is required to demonstrate neutrality, not hostility, toward religion. Furthermore, the Establishment Clause (sometimes referred to as the alleged “separation of church and state”) “does not license government to treat religion and those who teach or practice it simply by virtue of their status as such, as subversive of American ideals and, therefore, subject to unique disabilities.” Mergens at 248.