“The first of all freedoms enumerated in our Bill of Rights is freedom of religion.”
With those words, George H. W. Bush inaugurated the first Religious Freedom Day on January 16, 1993. Since that time, Religious Freedom Day is observed annually on January 16, and each president has confirmed it in proclamation each year. While many are unaware that religious freedom is given a special day to be memorialized and affirmed every year, the right to exercise religious freedom is spelled out, protected, and encouraged far beyond the perimeters that even government entities and officials may want to accept.
One area where religious freedom is most often debated, denied, and picked apart is in public schools and colleges, where both teachers and students are quick to find their religious expressions quelled and tossed out. And to make matters worse, few students, teachers, or school officials are well versed in the exact laws and guidelines on religious freedom. As a result, they are often afraid to enter that supposedly forbidden zone and quick to back down and surrender to threats, whether arising from another student or parent or from an activist group like the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
However, government guidelines on how religious liberty can be carried out in school could not be clearer. In 1995, 1998, and 2003, the U.S. Department of Education sent and re-sent information for school superintendents to distribute so all parents, teachers, and students would know their religious liberties. Still, many people remain in the dark about what is rightly described as their first freedom.
Schools are not religion-free zones. The idea that bringing religion to school violates separation of church and state is actually the opposite of what is in the constitution, many state standards, and legal rulings. Neither students nor teachers shed their rights when they enter a school, as was determined by the legal case Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969.
Some of the ways students may carry their religion with them to school include:
- Students are free to discuss religion – as long as it does not disrupt classroom time.
- Students may turn in assignments on the subject of faith – as long as it fits the parameters of the assignment.
- Students may even be required to learn religious information by their state – check state standards online here.
Likewise, some of the ways teachers are able to exercise religious freedom include:
- Educating students on religious freedom, particularly in light of nationally observed holidays such as Independence Day, Constitution Week, or Religious Freedom Day.
- Teaching about religion in an objective, factual way when it pertains to the subject matter (and, again, when it is material required by state standards).
- Answering students’ questions about faith – briefly and honestly – without seeming to pressure the student to accept the faith or prolong the conversation.
- Engaging in discussions of religion with other teachers or in employee-only settings and participating in employee prayer groups or Bible studies. Employers may not discriminate against them based on religion and must work to accommodate a teacher’s religion.