Know your rights: religious freedom in public schools

Public schools are required to be secular institutions. Because public schools are funded by taxpayers and because children are more impressionable than adults, these schools have a special obligation not to infringe on the religious rights of their students, parents, and teachers. But what are those rights? Can coaches pray at games or not? Can teachers talk about religion in class? Can students have bible club on campus?

Secular AZ has three Know Your Rights guides in our website’s educational resources: one for teachers, one for students, and one for parents. I’ve included some of their broad points below, but for more details, you can find the guides here.

  • Parents have the right to raise their children in the religion (or no religion) of their choice. Schools may not directly or indirectly coerce students to engage in religious activity—even if it’s something that seems passive or voluntary, like asking everyone to listen to a prayer at graduation. Public schools cannot conduct, sponsor, or endorse prayer at any official school activity—including after-school activities and board meetings.
  • Students have the right to engage in voluntary, student-initiated prayer, as long as it is not disruptive or sponsored by the school. Students must also be allowed to have religious clubs and meetings outside of class, to the same extent that non-religious extracurricular clubs are allowed. Students are also free to pray, read religious texts, and share their faith as long as they are not being disruptive or harassing others.
    • The key here is that all of these activities must be led by students. Teachers can’t start bible clubs or encourage students to join them in prayer.
    • It’s also important to note that this doesn’t mean students are free to harass their classmates because of their religious beliefs. LGBTQ students are at particular risk of being mistreated because of prejudice supported by some religious beliefs. Students should not be able to use religion to get away with bullying or harassment.
    • If the school allows religious clubs, it must also allow clubs like the Gay-Straight Alliance.
  • If schools choose to provide religious accommodations (like allowing religious clothing that would otherwise violate dress code or excusing a student’s absence), then they must treat students of all religious beliefs equally. For example, a dress code rule that prohibits head coverings on campus can’t make an exception for yarmulkes but not hijabs.
  • Teachers and other staff have the right to pray privately, as long as these prayers are not publicly broadcast or recited to a captive audience. Teachers are prohibited from using their religious beliefs to discriminate against students who are non-religious or those in the LGBTQ community.
  • Schools may teach religion as an academic, objective subject without proselytizing. These classes should provide overviews of religions and should never assert the superiority of one religion over another or of religion over non-religion.
  • Schools should not hold events or activities at houses of worship. In the event that a church is the only place that can accommodate an activity (like a graduation in a small town), religious displays or messages should be covered up.
  • The school cannot let people come onto school property to communicate religious messages to students during the school day or at after school activities. When school is not in session, religious groups may use the building, but they must not be given special access or treatment. For example, if the school rents out the building to a local women’s choir and a local church for one hour each week, they must charge the same amount and have the same policies for both.

The bottom line is that schools cannot do anything that appears to be promoting a religion or promoting religion over non-religion. Schools must respect the religious freedom of staff and students while ensuring that students are free from coercion and harassment.

If you feel like your local school is violating any of these rights, or you just have questions about the rights of teachers, parents, and students please feel free to contact

Adriana Clark is a recent law school graduate and legal fellow with Secular AZ.