Every so often I get messages from students who have questions about what sort of religious expression is permitted in school. For instance, who can speak about religion, and in what context? Can your school prohibit you from wearing a shirt with a pentacle on it, or a piece of Pagan jewelry?
The answer is going to depend on two things – first, which country you live in, and secondly, whether you attend a private or public school.
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on schools in the United States, simply because I don’t have the knowledge needed to speak with any semblance of authority on other countries and their laws.
Public School Guidelines
If you’re a student at an American public school, that information is standard across the board, because there are federal guidelines on religious expression in public schools.
Why is this a thing? Well, public schools are funded by public money, which means that the federal government can take a stance on the issue. Your tax dollars pay for schools, so this means that public schools fall under the umbrella of federal legislation and guidelines.
In 1995, then-US Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sent every school superintendent in America a set of guidelines to follow, and those rules still stand today. In general, they are as follows:
Student Prayer and Religious Discussion: Prayer and discussion of religion by students is permitted, and they are welcome to engage in these activities as long as they do so in a way that’s non-disruptive. They can even attempt to persuade other students about their beliefs, but they can’t harass members of another group in the name of religious free speech. So, you can say, “I really love being Pagan and here’s why I think you might like being Pagan too.” What you CAN’T say is, “Well, Becky, I’m Pagan and your Christian belief is STUPID and you should be Pagan like me because I’m right and you’re wrong.”
Teaching About Religion: Public schools aren’t allowed to teach religious courses, but they are allowed to teach about religion. For example, the Bible and the Koran can be included as part of a literature class, or as part of a comparative religions class.
Student Clothing: When it comes to clothing, local school districts get a some leeway from the government as far as setting dress code. Ideally, no articles of student clothing should be disruptive. You can wear a shirt that says “I <3 the Goddess,” but not one that says “Jesus sucks.”
Administrative Neutrality: Teachers and other school officials are considered representatives of the state, so the establishment clause prohibits them from being involved with student religious activity in a public school. They can’t participate in or encourage any sort of religious activity with the students.
However, if you’re a student at a private or parochial school, these guidelines may not apply to you.
Religion in Private Schools
In private schools, all bets are off, and the reason is a simple one: private schools are privately funded, and don’t receive federal or state dollars. This means they can set their own rules for student and staff conduct.
If you attend a private school that is church-affiliated, you could be required to attend religious classes, prayer sessions, or Bible study. This too is legal. If you are a student at Our Holy Father of the Chia Pet High School, and Sister Mary Margaret tells you it’s time for prayer, there’s nothing against the law there.
A private school may have a specific dress code that all students are expected to adhere to. You could be prohibited from wearing shirts, jewelry, or clothing that have Pagan messages or symbols on them.
Despite the fact that they don’t get federal tax dollars, no private school may discriminate against students on the basis of race, but pretty much any other issue (like religion, or sexual orientation) is something that gets really slippery in the courts. For instance, a Christian school might refuse to admit a gay or lesbian student because it goes against the philosophy of their church. They also might say “We only want Christian students here.” As long as they are not receiving federal tax dollars, this has been allowed by the courts in the past.
The bottom line? If you’re attending a public school in the US, you’ve got some legal standing when it comes to religious matters, but if you’re a student at a private institution, you are probably going to be required to follow their rules.