Religion in Schools

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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.

Relevant Laws & Guidance

Religious Accommodations

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.

Discriminatory Harassment Based on Religion

Washington public schools have a responsibility to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students. Bullying or harassment that targets a student based on their religion or religious beliefs is discriminatory harassment. Schools must take steps to protect students from discriminatory harassment and must investigate possible harassment as soon as they know or reasonably should know about it, even if a parent or student does not file a formal complaint.

Teaching About Religion

The United States Constitution prohibits public schools from endorsing or preferring one religion over another and from endorsing religion over non-religion.

Public schools are permitted to teach students about the world's religions as long as this instruction serves an educational purpose, such as the role of religion in history and society. Teachers should present the material in a neutral, objective, and balanced way.

In general, public schools are allowed to use music, art, drama, or literature with religious themes. For example, students might play religious music as part of an academic study of music and music history. However, schools should not use such music to promote religion.

Common Religious Holidays

Many students end up missing school and important school events in order to honor their religious practices. For this reason, OSPI encourages districts not to schedule significant school events on major religious holidays. Schools that plan around major religious holidays convey to all students that they are a meaningful part of their school communities and that their religious traditions matter.

Federal Guidance

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.

Can public schools use music, art, drama, or literature with religious themes?

In general, public schools are allowed to use music, art, drama, or literature with religious themes. For example, students might play religious music as part of an academic study of music and music history. However, schools should not use such music to promote religion.

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?

Students may:

  • 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.

Teachers may:

  • 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.