Religion in Schools
Public schools must protect students from discrimination and harassment on the basis of religion, including a student's religious background, beliefs, dress, and expression. Religion and creed are protected classes under Washington law.
This information sheet outlines students' rights to be free from discrimination and harassment on the basis of religion.
Religious Expression at School
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects a student's rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Students who choose to express their religious beliefs at school are permitted to:
- Express these beliefs at school, in homework, and in school assignments
- Pray or study religious materials during recess, lunch, and other non-instructional time, such as before or after school
- Pray or discuss religion with other students during the school day in the same way that students can engage in other conversations with students, as long as it is not disruptive and does not infringe on the rights of other students
Public school staff must take reasonable steps to accommodate a student's religious beliefs or practices, unless that accommodation would create an undue hardship. Undue hardship is a term that means the accommodation is costly, compromises safety, or infringes on the rights of other students or employees.
Religious accommodations could include:
- Excusing absences for religious observances or activities.
- Providing alternative assignments with similar learning goals.
- Waiving dress code or school uniform requirements that conflict with a student's religious beliefs or practices. For example, a school might waive a rule to allow a student to wear a head cover, jewelry, religious object, beard, or hair of a certain length.
Many students end up missing school and important school events in order to honor their religious practices. OSPI encourages districts not to schedule significant school events on major religious holidays; this conveys to all students that they are a meaningful part of their school communities and that their religious traditions matter.
Harassment Based on Religion or Creed
Harassment based on religion or creed is a form of discrimination prohibited in Washington public schools. Schools must take steps to protect students and investigate possible discriminatory harassment, as soon as they know or reasonably should know, even if a parent or student does not file a complaint. For more information, visit Information for Families: Discriminatory and Sexual Harassment and Complaints and Concerns about Discrimination.
Resources & Support
- Common Religious and Public Holidays 2023-24
- Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools (U.S. Department of Education)
Frequently Asked Questions
- May teachers teach about religious holidays?
Yes. Teachers may teach about religious holidays as part of an objective educational program that focuses on teaching about religion; however, celebrating religious holidays is unconstitutional. Teaching about the historical, contemporary, and cultural aspects of holidays of various world religions is subject to certain restrictions. Teaching about religion is likely allowed if:
- The proposed lesson furthers a genuine educational purpose;
- It is presented objectively; and
- It does not have the effect of advancing or inhibiting any religious or nonreligious practices.
- Must public school officials make school facilities available during nonschool hours for religious use by religious organizations?
Some courts hold that the school may not refuse rental requests by religious groups if they grant such requests to other community groups. Other courts hold that the school may deny the rental requests of religious organizations which seek to use the premises for religious purposes as long as they do so consistently and do not apply selective rules to certain religious groups.
- Is it constitutional to teach about religion in public schools?
Generally, yes. Public schools are not religion-free zones. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently rejected efforts to teach religion in the public schools, it has permitted teaching about religion in the context of a public education.
- What constitutes teaching about religion?
Teaching about religion must be clearly distinguished from teaching religion, which amounts to religious indoctrination and practice and is clearly prohibited in public schools. A program intended to teach religion, disguised as teaching about religion, will be found unconstitutional.
Religion may be presented as part of a public educational program, with the goal of teaching students about the role of religion in the historical, cultural, economic and social development of the United Stated and other nations, and instilling understanding, tolerance and respect. Religion must be discussed in a neutral, objective, balanced and factual manner.
The curriculum's approach may not be devotional or doctrinal, nor have the effect of promoting or inhibiting religion.
- How may the study of religion be integrated into the public school curriculum?
The study of religion may naturally occur within the context of studying other topics. In early education, the subject of religion may naturally arise in discussion of families, communities, and different cultures and holidays. For older students, the topic may be integrated into classes on social studies, history, literature, art, music and comparative religions.
- What does the law not permit?
Teachers may not:
- Lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities;
- Persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities;
- What does the law permit?
- Voluntarily pray at non-instructional time before, during, or after the school day;
- Pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other conversation or speech;
- Pray when not engaged in school activities or instruction;
- Read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, lunch, or other non-instructional time.
- Express their belief about religion in homework, artwork, or other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.
- Dismiss students to off-premise religious instruction, provided that schools do not encourage or discourage participation in such instruction or penalize students for attending or not attending. Therefore, it is lawful for schools to excuse Muslim students briefly from class to enable them to fulfill their religious obligations during Ramadan.