This is an American article, but has relevance for New Zealand now.
The role of religion in public schools continues to be a hotly debated issue. Some public school teachers avoid the mere mention of religion in their classrooms because they are afraid of offending students, becoming the target of a lawsuit, or even losing their job. Other teachers would like to talk about religion, but don’t know what they are allowed to say and what would be considered "crossing the line." If you are among the many teachers, students, and parents who may have questions concerning religion in public schools, you may wish to take a moment to explore some of the resources available to you.
A publication by the First Amendment Center called Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools can be downloaded for free online (see link below). Finding Common Ground is a guidebook that explains teachers’ and students’ religious rights. It gives information concerning a wide variety of subjects such as equal access, judicial court rulings, and religious holidays. Below you will also find a link to the United States Department of Education Guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools.
Freedom of Speech
The Supreme Court has ruled that students retain their freedom of speech and expression when at school. According to the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, a school may only silence students if they are actually disrupting school discipline. That is, a student’s freedom of expression does not give him or her the right to interrupt class. However, during free time, students are free to:
• Read their Bibles
• Talk to peers about religion and pray with their peers
• Wear clothing with Christian symbols and messages
• Pass out religious tracts
If a secondary public school receives any federal funding and if it allows any other non-curriculum clubs (like the chess club or the glee club) to form, then it must allow students to form Bible clubs or other religiously oriented organizations on campus, with the same rights to the facilities as other clubs. Religious clubs are guaranteed the right to official recognition, which means the school must offer them access to the school newspaper, bulletin boards, and the public announcement system et al. Religious clubs, however, must be student-initiated and student-led. The students may invite outside speakers, but the club must be organized and led by the students themselves.
Because religion is such an integral part of history and politics and the human experience in general, it is a relevant topic in the classroom setting. Teachers and students are free to discuss different religions and the impact religion has had on society. While teachers must maintain a neutral position with the students, students are free to offer their own personal opinions on religious matters. [Teachers are free to discuss religious issues with their own peers outside of the classroom.]
Students may write papers on religious subjects, including the Bible. The Bible has had an enormous impact on history and literature and is an important book to know, even from a secular viewpoint. Literature from Shakespeare to Faulkner is full of allusions to the Bible, which can only be fully appreciated with a working knowledge of God’s Word.
Teachers also retain their First Amendment rights at school, but at the same time represent the school while in the classroom and at school events. Therefore, public school teachers are not permitted to "force their religion" on students. However, teachers do have a lot of freedom to teach about religion for educational purposes. They may teach on comparative religions, including Christianity. They may discuss the impact religion has had on history and science and literature. They may even discuss religion with students one-on-one, if the student initiates and maintains the conversation and is not compelled to agree with the teacher’s position.
As school starts up again, continue to pray for those faithful teachers who are striving to teach students according to righteousness in the face of an increasingly liberal education establishment, and for those students who are willing to stand up for their faith and be a light to their peers rather than just going along with the crowd.
• United States Department of Education Guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools – ACLJ
• Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools – Freedom Forum
• Train Up a Child: Home Schooling – Koinonia House
• Armor for the Age of Deceit – MP3 Download – Koinonia House
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