Advancing Religious Liberty
9/4/13 at 06:21 PM 0 Comments

What Pastors and Churches Need to Know -- Back-to-School Edition

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Author: Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel David J. Hacker

As a pastor, you see them—the signs of a new school year are all around us. The teachers you shepherd are preparing for a new year teaching a new class of students. Yellow school buses are back on the roads, parents are taking advantage of back-to-school specials, and recently empty school parking lots are now buzzing with activity. Your church is likely also in the swing of things, promoting Sunday school kids from one grade to the next and starting a new year of curriculum. But with the start of school—whether kindergarten or college—comes many questions about students sharing their faith on campus. There are things you as a pastor should know to help guide your congregation during the school year.

Religion is Allowed in Public Schools

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right of students of all ages to express their religious beliefs on campus. As the U.S. Supreme Court said nearly twenty years ago, private religious speech is not a “First Amendment orphan.” Students can pray on campus—on their own or in groups. Students can bring Bibles to campus and reference them in assignments (if it’s relevant to the subject matter being taught). And if a public school or college allows students to form clubs on campus, students can form religious clubs and receive all the same resources provided to non-religious student clubs.

Students May Share their Faith in Public Schools

Of course, many students will want to share their faith with their classmates. Whether in class or among friends, students do not need to suppress their religious viewpoints, and school administrators cannot tell them to do so. In fact, the Constitution protects students’ rights to pass out religious flyers and materials. This is especially true if schools already permit students to hand out non-religious materials.

Religious Freedom in Schools is Under Attack

Religious freedom is alive and well in public schools and universities, but that’s not to say it isn’t under attack. In recent years, public schools have adopted vague and overly restrictive anti-bullying and diversity policies. The problem is that these policies give school administrators virtually unrestrained discretion to decide what constitutes “bullying,” and all too often they define “bullying” as sharing the Gospel. Many public schools also have adopted policies prohibiting religious flyers or proselytizing. The thinking is that these activities violate the so-called “separation of church and state.” But as we said above, the First Amendment protects students who want to share their faith on campus. Finally, public schools are increasingly censoring religious student speech and prayers at football games, graduations, and other activities. But so long as school administrators are not telling students what to say or how to pray, students speak as private individuals and may do so freely.

You would hope that public universities, the quintessential “marketplaces of ideas,” would prove to be better examples of protecting religious liberty on campus, but they are not. Like their public school siblings, public universities nationwide use vague speech codes to punish religious students who hold views or opinions that are outside the secular campus mainstream. These universities also try to limit student speech to “speech zones”—typically, small areas of campus where students may engage in speech, but which prevent students from sharing their faith elsewhere. And many public universities put special restrictions on religious student organizations—telling them they cannot select leaders based on religious beliefs, or they cannot access mandatory student fees if they pray or worship. All of these policies discriminate against students of faith and are unconstitutional.

There is Help Available

Students should not think that when they return to campus this year they must leave their faith at home. The Supreme Court said long ago that students do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse gates. Students may share their faith freely and boldly on campus. But if they experience any of these threats to religious liberty on campus, they should contact Alliance Defending Freedom for free help.

This post originally appeared here.

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