Student Rights to Religious Freedom
and to Free Speech on Religious Topics
IN FULFILLING ASSIGNMENTS, responding to various school invitations, or acting on their own, public school students may wish to engage in speech that is religious or is about a religious topic. If teachers or school authorities do not allow the speech, the student's parents may claim that her rights to free speech and free exercise have been violated.1 In this chapter we look at these issues—except for the activities of religious clubs and religious speech at graduation ceremonies, covered in previous chapters2— through the lens of some leading cases.
A teacher gives students an assignment to write a paper or perform in class. A student chooses to respond with a presentation that is significantly religious. Told to write on an important historical figure, she decides to write about King David; or told to read a passage from a favorite book, she picks the verses from the Gospel of John that evangelical Christians often quote.
So long as the student's response falls within the assignment's subject matter, the teacher certainly may accept what the student has done, even if that involves a presentation to the class as a whole. Merely permitting a student to respond to an open-ended assignment in this way does not involve the state in sponsoring religion.3
The issue is more difficult if the teacher is trying to decide whether to accept the student's proposed response, or the teacher has decided not to allow the student's religious topic and has insisted on a different one, and the student's parents seek judicial review. May a school reasonably try to keep religious messages out of the classroom or do such restrictions violate the student's right to free speech or to the free exercise of religion?