Recently Attorney Lisa J. Schmidt presented Straight Talk on Students’ Rights at the Ferndale Public Library. A previous post summarized students’ free speech rights. This post will review the question of freedom of religion in public schools.
The issue of students’ rights is often a complicated question of several conflicting interests. Of course there are the rights of the students which must be weighed against the compelling interests of the schools. However, when dealing with religion matters, quite often the question is who has the right to make decisions for the student: the teacher or the parent.
The parents come into the debate because they have a fundamental right to raise their children in their own faith tradition. Students also have a fundamental right to express their own religious beliefs.
Students’ beliefs or expression need not conform to any recognized religion. Instead it must be based on the sincerely held religious belief of the student or parents. Because they are so subjective, the courts rarely challenge the validity of any alleged sincerely held religious beliefs.
National interests can get involved too. In 1943, parents of Jehovah’s Witness students objected to the school’s policy of daily mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. According to their beliefs, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were not permitted to pledge or swear to anyone or anything other than God.
Three years earlier the Supreme Court had required students to salute the flag citing the need to instill nationalism in public school students, but this time the Court held differently. It ruled that the school had to allow students to opt out of the Pledge for religious reasons. Similar rulings have been made with regard to sexual education and evolution.
But the parents can’t require the school to teach or not teach something due to their religious beliefs. They may not dictate the curriculum of the school or prohibit the school from exposing students to religiously objectionable material. Instead if parents object to the curriculum chosen by the school, they have the right to withdraw their children from public schooling.
On the other hand, schools may not favor one religion over another. Teachers may not do anything that could be seen to endorse any particular religion including leading prayers.
So what if the parents have opted their students out of a particular issue but the student does not want to leave? Does the teacher have to enforce the parents’ wishes? That is not clear. What is clear is that teachers must not put pressure students to stay against their religious convictions.
The rules are relatively clear surrounding freedom of religion in public schools but litigation continues around the edges. Because schools are most often controlled on the municipal level, multiple lawsuits are needed to create uniform enforcement of students’ and parents’ religious rights.