The Rights of Christians in Public Schools

Laws, Policies and Precedent Clearly Allow Student-led Religious Expression

The Rights of Christians in Public Schools

Laws, Policies and Precedent Clearly Allow Student-led Religious Expression

On thousands of school campuses around the world, students met at 7 a.m. on Sept. 22 to pray around their school flagpoles.

See You at the Pole, held annually since 1990 on the fourth Wednesday of September, brings together students to pray for their schools. And this year, prayer is especially needed, said Doug Clark, promotion coordinator for See You at the Pole.

Many students are struggling with fear, anxiety and depression, Clark told Decision, and when he speaks with youth workers, they express a deep sense of urgency to intercede for students, teachers and school administrators. “They are really being shredded right now,” he said.

According to Clark, early reports from yesterday’s events have mentioned how refreshing it was for students to pray with like-minded students, and the hope is that students would continue to pray together after the event. “Our vision is that the moment will become a movement,” Clark said.

Although student-led prayer such as See You at the Pole is firmly established as a Constitutional right in the United States, and the U.S. Department of Education has issued clear guidance on the topic, each new school year seems to bring a number of instances where teachers or school administrators, either misunderstanding or neglecting the religious rights of students and others in public schools, try to stop a prayer or a Christian message from being expressed.

Last October, third-grader Lydia Booth wore her favorite facemask to class at Simpson Central School, in Simpson, Mississippi. The mask included the phrase “Jesus Loves Me,” and Lydia had worn it to class in the past. But on this day, a teacher told her she would need to remove it and wear a different one instead.

At the same time, the school allowed other students to wear masks with messages such as “Black Lives Matter” or the logos of their favorite sports teams.

Lydia’s mother researched school regulations and found nothing to prohibit a student from wearing a mask that says “Jesus Loves Me.” In a series of exchanges with school and district personnel, it became clear that officials were covering their tracks, even modifying a mask policy statement and then trying to present it as if it had always included this sentence: “No political, religious, sexual or inappropriate statements are allowed on mask.”

In November, Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit on behalf of Lydia in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

“No public school student should be singled out for peacefully sharing her religious beliefs with fellow students,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. “Today’s students will be tomorrow’s legislators, judges, educators and voters. That’s why it’s so important that public schools demonstrate the First Amendment values they are supposed to be teaching to students.”

Alliance Defending Freedom has developed a number of resources to help students, parents, teachers and coaches know their religious rights in public schools. The First Liberty law firm has compiled a “Religious Liberty Protection Kit” for students and teachers in public K-12 schools.

Photo of Lydia Booth: Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom

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