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.
Chapter 28A.642 RCW | Chapter 392-190 WAC | Chapter 49.60 RCW
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
Harassment | Discriminatory Harassment-Based on Religion or Creed
Harassment based on religion 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.
Discriminatory Harassment - Equity and Civil Rights at OSPI
Questions, Concerns, Complaints
A discussion with your school principal, or civil rights coordinator at the school district, is often the best first step to address your concerns or disagreements about religious discrimination and work toward a solution. Share what happened and let the principal or coordinator know what they can do to help resolve the problem.
If you cannot resolve the concern or disagreement this way, you can file a complaint.
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
School staff must take steps to protect students from discriminatory harassment. This includes investigating possible discriminatory harassment - as soon as they know or reasonably should know - even if a parent or student does not file a complaint.
Discriminatory Harassment - Equity and Civil Rights at OSPI
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.
Public schools must not impose or promote religious beliefs. Public school employees, including coaches, are not permitted to lead prayers or encourage students to pray. School employees must not encourage or invite students to participate in, or refrain from, religious activities.
Resources & Support
- Religious Discrimination (Guidelines: Prohibiting Discrimination, pages 27-28)
Federal Policy & Guidance
Frequently Asked Questions
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
- 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.