For years, certain Christians from more conservative faith traditions have asserted that the Supreme Court in a series of decisions in the 1950s, 60s and 70s essentially outlawed God in the classroom. These claims, rooted in the backlash against protecting religious diversity and freedom, are untrue. Religious group meetings, prayer, and Bible study are all allowed in public schools as long as they meet the requirements governing other student activities and organizations. Groups cannot disrupt classes or be coercive (force others to participate or harass those who choose not too), they must be completely voluntary and student-led, and cannot be school-sponsored. These guidelines allow a great deal of leeway, providing a space for public school students who wish to participate in such activities while respecting those who do not in accordance with the Constitution.
Religious activity at public schools may not be restricted to students. Many public schools make their facilities available to outside groups, including religious organizations, as long as they meet certain guidelines. But accommodation can get schools into trouble. This month, a Christian group in Chicago contracted with an entertainment company that markets morality plays to put on a gory “Hell House” production in a public elementary school. This fundamentalist horror pageant is billed as an interactive Christian event that would include a graphic staging of the Pulse Nightclub massacre as part of an anti-LGBT message. When word got out, school officials withdrew their authorization for the show because the sponsoring group had not been forthcoming about the hate-focused content of the show.
A public junior high school in Mississippi included a reminder that “bring your Bible to School Day” was approaching and to plan accordingly. Nothing prohibits students from bringing a book of faith to school, but the school itself cannot organize, sponsor or facilitate such activities.
There has also been a recent spate of baptisms and prayer meetings conducted on the field during practice or at public school football games. Despite the outcry against such blatant religious observances, athletic personnel at various locations around the country continue to flout the law against these displays.
All claims to the contrary, neither God, prayer nor religion have been banned from public schools. But when a school appears to endorse, support or even mandate adherence to one particular religion, it fosters a culture of coercion and exclusion among students, and within the community as a whole. This is what the First Amendment prohibits, not a student’s ability to follow their own conscience.