Freedom of religion is one of the things that first brought immigrants to America. And it's one of our most cherished rights. The First Amendment protects that right in two ways. It ensures that we are freely able to practice the religion of our choice and it prohibits government from establishing a religion and forcing us to participate.
School children are especially vulnerable to abuses of this right -- frequently from well-intentioned people who don't understand the First Amendment. To help school officials navigate these issues and how they apply to real world situations, the ACLU of Montana has published a guide to the law on issues like school prayer, holidays, religious garb and more.
Public schools must keep three fundamental First Amendment clauses in mind:
The Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." This clause prohibits public schools from endorsing or encouraging religion in any way.
The Free Exercise Clause: "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." This clause ensures that students are free to exercise their own religious beliefs without governmental interference.
The Free Speech Clause: "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech." This means that students are free to express their religious views at school, within certain guidelines.
Together these clauses protect students from having religion imposed upon them by school administrators and teachers, while at the same time ensuring they can freely practice and express their own religious views.
Key Supreme Court Cases Regarding Religion and Public Schools
Listen to one-minute podcasts about these key U.S. Supreme Court cases that protect students' right to practice religion and to not have it imposed upon them. They were produced as part of the ACLU of Montana project "Your Constitutional Rights."Abington School Dist. v. Schempp
Every morning, senior high students hear a Bible reading. A Unitarian family considers this school prayer policy contrary to their faith.
Epperson v. Arkansas
An old state "anti-evolution" statute means that biology teachers in Little Rock who use the school's new science texts could lose their job.
Wisconsin v. Yoder
Three Amish families pull their children from school for religious reasons. The parents are convicted of violating the compulsory-attendance law.
Wallace v. Jaffree
What Alabama law calls legal voluntary school prayer, Ismael Jaffree calls unconstitutional "religious indoctrination."
Edwards v. Aguillard
Louisiana's Creationism Act permits public schools to teach evolution, but only if "creation-science" is taught with it.
Santa Fe Independent School District
Before every Santa Fe High varsity football game, a student chaplain delivers a prayer over the public address system. Mormons and Catholics object.
West Virginia State Board Of Education v. Barnette
2000 children of Jehovah's Witnesses are expelled for not saluting the flag. Their parents are charged with causing delinquency.
Tinker v. Des Moines School District
To protest the Vietnam war, Mary Beth Tinker wears a black armband to junior high school. The principal orders her to take it off. She will not, and is suspended.
The ACLU of Montana is available to consult with school officials on specific constitutional questions in public schools. You can reach us at:
ACLU of Montana
PO Box 1317
Helena, MT 59624