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613.1 Guideline: Religion in the Schools

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613.1 Guideline: Religion in the Schools

The purpose of these administrative guidelines is to provide additional direction regarding implementation of Board Policy 613.


Teachers, school administrators, and other school employees, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the state and are prohibited by the establishment clause from soliciting or encouraging religious activity, and from participating in such activity with students.  School employees also are prohibited from discouraging activity because of its religious content, and from soliciting or encouraging anti-religious activity.

Where the overall context makes it clear that they are not participating in their official capacities, school employees may take part in religious activities.  For example, before school or during lunch, school employees may meet together for prayer or Bible study to the same extent that they may engage in other conversation or nonreligious activities.  Similarly, school employees may participate in their personal capacities in privately sponsored baccalaureate ceremonies.


A. Teaching about Religion

Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture:  the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries all are permissible public school subjects.  Similarly, it is permissible to consider religious influences on art, music, literature and social studies.  Although public schools may teach about religious holidays, including their religious aspects, and may celebrate the secular aspects of holidays, school may not observe holidays as religious events or promote such observance by students.

B. Teaching Values

Though schools must be neutral with respect to religion, they may play an active role with respect to teaching civic values and virtue, and the moral code that holds us together as a community. The fact that some of these values are held also by religions does not make it unlawful to teach them in school.  Examples of values that may be taught include honesty, respect for others, courage, kindness and good citizenship.  It is also appropriate for school officials to instill in students such values as independent thought, tolerance of diverse views, self-respect, maturity, and logical decision-making.

C. Creationism, Creation-Science and Evolution

1. The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that it is unconstitutional to restrict an educator's right to teach evolution.

2. In science classes, educators may only present scientific explanations for life on earth and scientific critiques of evolution. The U.S. Supreme court has held that it is unconstitutional to require educators who teach evolution to also teach creationism.

3. Creationism may be included in classes on comparative religions as an example of how some religious groups believe human life began.  However, creationism may not be taught as scientific fact.

D. Religious Holidays

1. Teaching about Religious Holidays

While teachers may teach about religious holidays as part of an objective and secular educational program of teaching about religion, celebrating religious holidays in the form of religious worship or other practices is unconstitutional.  Teaching about holidays with both a religious and secular basis may be constitutional if it furthers a genuine secular program of education, is presented objectively, and does not have the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion.  The study of religious holidays should reflect this nation's diversity and bountiful heritage.

2. Religious Symbols

Religious symbols such as crosses, crèches and menorahs may be used as teaching aids in the classroom provided that the symbols are displayed as an example of the cultural and religious heritage of the holiday, and are temporary in nature.  They may not be used as decorations.  Symbols of religious holidays that have acquired secular meaning, such as Christmas trees, may be permissible decorations, although the courts have not ruled on this specific issue.

3. Religious Music, Art, Literature and Drama

Music, art, literature and drama with religious themes may be included in teaching about holidays, provided that they are presented in a religiously neutral, prudent and objective manner, and relate to sound, secular educational goals.  However, it is unconstitutional for schools to permanently display religious artwork.

4. Special Events, Programs and Concerts

Religious music or drama may be included in school events, which are part of a secular program of education.  The content of school special events, assemblies, concerts and programs must be primarily secular, objective and educational, and not focus on any one religion or religious observance.  Such events must not promote or denigrate any particular religion, serve as a religious celebration, or become a forum for religious devotion.  Student participation shall be voluntary.

5. Excusal from Classes which Teach about Religious Holidays

If the religious beliefs of students or their parents conflict with the content of a classroom activity, students may be excused, consistent with Board Policy 611, Provision for Alternative Instruction.


A. Student Prayer and Religious Discussion

Students may pray in a non-disruptive manner when not engaged in school activities or instruction, and subject to the rules that normally pertain in the applicable setting.  Specifically, students in informal settings, such as cafeterias and hallways, may pray and discuss their religious views with each other, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other student activities and speech.  Students may also speak to, and attempt to persuade, their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics.  However, school officials should intercede to stop student speech that constitutes harassment aimed at a student or a group of students.

Students may also participate in before or after school events with religious content, such as "see you at the flag pole" gatherings, on the same terms as they may participate in other non-curriculum activities on school premises.  School officials may neither discourage nor encourage participation in such an event.

The right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion free from discrimination does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate.  Teachers and school administrators should ensure that no student is in any way coerced to participate in religious activity.

B. Student Assignments

Students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.  Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.

C. Student Speakers at Assemblies, Extracurricular Events, and Graduation

Student speakers at student assemblies, extracurricular events, and graduation may not be selected on a basis that either favors or disfavors religious speech.  Where student speakers are selected on the basis of genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria and retain primary control over the content of their expression, that expression is not attributable to the school and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious or anti-religious content.  By contrast, where school officials determine or substantially control the content of what is expressed, such speech is attributable to the school and may not include prayer or other specifically religious or anti-religious content.  To avoid any mistaken perception that a school endorses student speech that is not in fact attributable to the school, school officials may make appropriate, neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech, whether religious or nonreligious, is the speaker’s and not the school’s. 

D. Baccalaureate Ceremonies

Under current Supreme Court decisions, school officials may not mandate or organize religious ceremonies.  If a school generally opens its facilities to private groups, it must make its facilities available on the same terms to organizers of privately sponsored religious baccalaureate services.  A school may not extend preferential treatment to baccalaureate ceremonies.  In addition, a school may disclaim official endorsement of events sponsored by private groups, provided it does so in a manner that neither favors nor disfavors groups that meet to engage in prayer or religious speech.

E. Student Garb

Schools enjoy substantial discretion in adopting policies relating to student dress and school uniforms.  Students generally have no Federal right to be exempted from religiously-neutral and generally applicable school dress rules based on their religious beliefs or practices; however, schools may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a particular religion, for prohibition or regulation.  Students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages.  Religious messages may not be singled out for suppression, but rather are subject to the same rules as generally apply to comparable messages. Board Policy 547 governs student dress and appearance.

F. Distribution of Religious Literature

Students have a right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature that is unrelated to school curriculum or activities.  Schools may impose the same reasonable time, place and manner or other constitutional restrictions on distribution of religious literature as they do on nonschool literature generally, but they may not single out religious literature for special regulation.  Board Policy 561 governs distributing of non-curricular literature to students.


A. Religious Excusals

Consistent with Board Policy 611, Provision for Alternative Instruction, a student may be excused from lessons that are objectionable to the student or the students' parents on religious or other conscientious grounds.  School officials may neither encourage nor discourage students from availing themselves of an excusal option.

Students may also be excused from class to remove a significant burden on their religious exercise, where doing so would not impose material burdens on other students.  For example, it would be permissible to excuse Muslim students briefly from class to enable them to fulfill their religious obligations to pray during Ramadan.

B. Released Time

Consistent with Board Policy 345, Attendance and Truancy, students may be dismissed to attend off-premises religious instruction, provided that school officials neither encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who do not attend.  Schools may not allow religious instruction by outsiders on school premises during the school day.

C. School Calendar and Scheduling of Activities

Public schools do not have to close down or reschedule activities due to conflicts between the school calendar and religious holidays.  However, schools may choose to do so when large numbers of students and teacher absences are anticipated.  If possible, so as not to penalize students for religious observance, school district, individual school and teacher calendars should be prepared, to the greatest feasible extent, not to conflict with religious holidays of all faiths.  A sincere attempt should be made not to schedule graduation, assembles, and other special school and student events on religious holidays.  If conflicts occur, sensitivity and flexibility should be exercised.


Legal References:   

Case law citations for all topics included in the administrative guidelines are listed in the following publications: Religion in the Public Schools:  Guidelines for a Growing and Changing Phenomenon (Anti-defamation League, 1996), Religious Expression in Public Schools:  a Statement of Principles (U.S. Department of Education, June 1998), and Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools (U.S. Department of Education, February 2003)


Cross References:   

Policy 345: Attendance and Truancy

Policy 547: Student Dress and Appearance

Policy 561: Distribution of Non-curricular Literature to Students

Policy 611: Provision for Alternative Instruction


Dated: November 2, 1998

Reviewed: August 12, 2013

Revised: December 20, 2004; July 12, 2021