Know Your Rights!
The separation of church and state protects the religious freedom and rights of all public school students. Find out what your rights are and what to do if your rights are being violated.
Students attending public school have the right to:
- Use your free time to pray or to discuss religion. Religious clubs in public schools are perfectly acceptable, as long as they meet the following requirements:
- They are not coercive. All students have the right to practice religion—or not—so long as they do not harm others. This means that religious clubs must be led by students, not teachers, coaches, or other authority figures.
- They do not take away from instructional time. No one should be forced to choose between their secular education and their religious practice.
- Other clubs are also meeting at the same time. Just as schools can’t endorse one religion over another, they can’t endorse religious activities over nonreligious activities.
- Attend school events outside the classroom or normal school hours—e.g. football games, assemblies, and graduations—without exposure to school-endorsed or clergy-led prayer. Students are also prohibited from leading audiences in prayer when the school lends its symbolic approval to the prayers.
- A full day’s worth of secular education. Some public schools schedule “release time” during the day in which students leave campus for religious education offsite. This is legal, yet you have every right not to participate in the program. Additionally, should you choose not to participate, you have the right to meaningful, secular instruction during that time.
- Attend school without evangelism and evangelizing literature. Schools cannot allow outside groups to proselytize to students during the school day or at school events or distribute proselytizing literature.
- Have nonreligious sex education. While abstinence-only sex-education is technically legal, schools cannot use religious or evangelizing content to promote abstinence.
- Participate in choral, band and orchestra programs without being forced to perform religious music. Religious songs may be included in public-school choral performances only when they are chosen for secular reasons and the overall performance is secular. Students must be offered the opportunity to opt out of performing religious songs without penalty to their grade or any other negative consequence.
Students attending public school cannot be forced to:
- Be taught creationism or intelligent design as fact in science class. Evolution is a crucial part of science education. Public school systems are not allowed to ban the teaching of evolution for religious reasons, nor can they promote belief in religious theories about the origins of humankind, like creationism or intelligent design.
- Pray in school or at school functions. This includes any teacher-led prayer or devotional bible study, even if students who do not want to participate are allowed to leave the room or sit quietly. Students are allowed to pray in school, but such prayer must be voluntary and nondisruptive.
- Go to school alongside religious displays. Public schools cannot have things like the Ten Commandments, crosses, or nativity scenes on campus. Furthermore, school events like graduations and musical performances cannot take place in religious settings where there is visible religious iconography, like church sanctuaries.
- Say the "under God" portion of the Pledge of Allegiance, say any other part of the Pledge of Allegiance, or even stand up for it. Schools can reasonably expect students to sit quietly and non-disruptively during the Pledge, but that's it. And did you know, "under God" was added to the pledge only in 1954? Before that, the Pledge, as officially adopted by Congress in 1942, was entirely secular!
- Study religious texts in a devotional manner. Books like the Bible and the Quran are important parts of history, literature, and culture, and, as such, are critical to learn about. But it’s crucial that they are taught as secular material, with neither endorsement nor rejection of their theological claims.
FAQ for students of a minority faith:
- Am I allowed to get the school day off for my religious holiday? Schools have to be accommodating if a student needs to miss class for a religious holiday. Let your teachers know in advance and come to an agreement for how you can make up any missed work if you will be absent from school for a religious holiday. Tests and big deadlines should not be scheduled for religious holidays, and if they accidentally are, students should be able to make them up.
- Are all school closures for religious holidays okay? Not necessarily. Public schools cannot cancel class simply because a religious holiday exists. When school is canceled on a religious holiday, it should be because the school has a primarily secular interest in cancelling class, like if a significant portion of the school’s teachers and students will be absent.
- Can I wear my [____] in school? Yes. You can wear your hijab, yarmulke, Dastaar, and other religious garments during the school day. Your right to practice your religion does not stop at the schoolhouse door. Even if your school’s dress code prohibits head coverings, you have a right to expect a reasonable accommodation.
FAQ for LGBTQ Students:
Can I bring my date to the school dance or prom? Absolutely. You have the right to go to prom and other school events, and feel just as safe there as any other couple. Students are also allowed to wear gender-nonconforming clothes to dances.
Can I use the bathroom that best fits my gender identity? Unfortunately, the law on this is not yet settled, and school practices differ across the country. While some school districts are giving their transgender and gender-nonconforming students the rights they deserve, others are not. If your school currently has a policy that does not allow students to use the restroom that best fits with their gender identity, you have the right to petition your local school board to adopt a more inclusive policy. Americans United is currently working hard to ensure that religion is not used as an excuse to undermine antidiscrimination laws that protect transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
Can I start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club at my school? Yes! Thanks to the federal Equal Access Act, public schools must treat all student clubs equally. That means you can form a GSA club and publicize your meetings just like all other groups. And no one can use religion as an excuse to deny you this right.
What Should I do if my rights are being violated?
Step 1: Find A Support System
- To find allies: talk to your parents, classmates, supportive teachers, or other trusted adults about the violation that you have identified. You may also ask for their advice regarding whom to contact first. Having these conversations will allow you to find support within your school or home community and will better equip you to approach and convince the decision-maker(s) to change their behavior and correct the violation.
- Remember: Only speak to people about the issue if you feel comfortable doing so. Sometimes it's important to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone to identify allies, but always keep your safety and the safety of others in mind.
Step 2: Strategize
- Be sure to determine exactly what the violation is that you are organizing around. You may want to do some background research on the issue, including learning about the history of the issue and reading up on relevant court cases. Draft a clear and concise statement on what the violation is and how you think it can be resolved. Keep in mind that you can speak to someone at Americans United at any step in this process without filing a formal legal complaint.
- It is also crucial that you correctly identify the decision-maker. This would be the person who is calling the shots or making the ultimate decision to correct or ignore the violation. For example, if the violation deals with curriculum, changes may or may not be up to your classroom teacher. Be sure to determine the decision-maker before you set up a meeting to discuss the issue.
Step 3: Meet With The Decision-Maker
- Things to keep in mind when having your meeting: Because you are a student and you will most likely be confronting adults, there is a difference between your authority as a student and theirs as administrators. This should not discourage you. You have numbers and support. In your meeting, it is helpful to demonstrate this by bringing along classmates, parents, and other community members to stand with you.
Step 4: Report The Violation
- If you think that you need legal assistance, please let us know by filling out this Report a Violation Form. Please be advised that you might not get a response the day that you contact us, but you will get a response explaining what legal action we will or will not take. And be sure to keep us updated on any changes in circumstances. We will never make your name or information public without your permission.