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Religious freedom on campus: What students can and can’t do

How would you respond if one of these scenarios happened to your child, or to a student in your youth group?

  • A seven-year-old boy loves the encouraging Bible verses his mom puts in his lunch every day and begins sharing them with friends during the lunch break. But, according to a letter from a religious-freedom legal group, when school officials find out what’s happening, the first grader is reprimanded in front of other classmates.
  • A father expresses concern after his daughter, a high school student, tells him an education official stopped her from bowing her head to silently pray before eating lunch.
  • A fifth-grade student brought his favorite book, the Bible, with him to class to read during a free reading period. But according to news reports, the teacher had him come up to her desk and, in front of the class, left a message for his parent explaining that she noticed he had a religious book and was not “permitted to read those books” in her classroom.

Sadly, none of these scenarios are fiction. All of them were reported by parents or legal groups. Why is this happening? Religious freedom and free speech are historical rights and core components of the First Amendment. Schools should be celebrating these rights and educating students about them, not stifling them. Yet, we see more news headlines like these every year.

The question is: what can students really do—or not do—when it comes to freely expressing their faith at a public school? Here’s a quick summary:

What students can do

  1. Pray at school.  They can silently or quietly pray before eating lunch, gather in groups to say a prayer around the flagpole before or after school, or pray before or after a sporting event. Student prayers are considered to be private, personal speech. They are allowed as long as they are student-led (rather than being adult-led or school endorsed), aren’t disrupting academic instruction, and are voluntary—meaning no student feels coerced to participate.
  2. Share Scriptures with friends. In general, students can voluntarily express their personal and religious beliefs to their classmates through verbal or written expressions, as long as they follow school policy and do not engage in these activities during classroom or instruction time. Schools can enforce reasonable limits on times and locations for where students are allowed to distribute materials. But these regulations must be applied equally to all students. That means schools cannot impose an outright ban on religious-themed materials if they already allow students to distribute non-religious materials.
  3. Bring their Bible to school. Just as students can bring other favorite books they are reading to school, they can also bring their Bibles or other religious books and read them during free time. A student can even use the Bible in a class assignment as long as the student does so in a way that is relevant to the subject the teacher has assigned and meets the requirements of the assignment.
  4. Participate in Christian-themed events. Students and Christian clubs have equal access rights to participate in student-led events. Courts have said that school officials must remain neutral in how they treat students’ activities and free-speech expressions. For instance, school officials can’t allow one student group’s poster having to do with a secular subject to be put on a wall, but then turn around and deny permission to students who want to display Christian event posters just because they refer to Scripture or students’ religious beliefs. That could likely amount to illegal viewpoint discrimination.

What students can’t do

  1. Disrupt instruction time.  While students have tremendous free-speech rights, they cannot abuse those freedoms in a way that prevents the school from accomplishing its core mission of providing academic instruction. For instance, if students are participating in events like Bring Your Bible to School Day, they can’t use that as an excuse to be late to class or engage in activities in a manner that causes other students to be late. They cannot interrupt a teacher’s lesson plan in order to distribute information. It’s best for students to share materials with classmates during breaks, lunch hours or before or after school.
  2. Harass other students. Students do not have the right to force other students to listen to them or harass classmates. They do have the right, on the other hand, to invite classmates to voluntarily participate in activities and student-led discussions. The key point to remember is that it’s all about having conversations, not confrontations. A great verse to remind students of this principle is 1 Peter 3:15: “Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
  3. Ignore school policies. While students don’t need official permission to simply hold conversations with other classmates, it is a good idea to check for applicable school policies or notify school officials if they plan to distribute materials or put up posters. While schools do have the ability enforce reasonable regulations, they can’t enforce them in a biased way.

Putting students’ rights into practice

One fun, redemptive way that students can put their rights into practice is by participating in Bring Your Bible to School Day on October 6, 2016. Sponsored by Focus on the Family, this nationwide initiative empowers thousands of students—from kindergarten to college level—to celebrate their religious freedoms and share God's hope with friends.

Participation can be as simple as students bringing their Bibles to school and sharing verses with friends. Or, it can include more free-speech activities, such as wearing T-shirts or stickers, putting up posters and hosting discussion forums before or after class. Last year, 155,000 students participated in hundreds of schools across the nation. The event also went viral with students posting pictures of themselves online with #BringYourBible.

Encourage the students in your life to respectfully exercise their rights, unashamedly bear witness to the gospel and confidently join in on events like Bring Your Bible to School Day in order to help point their classmates to the hope of Christ that is in them.

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