The U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance on prayer and religious expression in public elementary and secondary schools, emphasizing that although school officials “may not promote or favor religion or coerce the consciences of students,” public schools are not “religion-free zones.”
Many religious liberty advocates, including BJC, praised the guidance. In a statement, General Counsel Holly Hollman said:
“The government should never tell students how, when or whether to pray. The U.S. Department of Education’s new guidance does a good job protecting students of all faiths and students who don’t practice a faith. It’s clear that the Biden administration understands the vital role that public schools play in ensuring faith freedom for all students.
“While occasionally hard questions arise, most debates over legal and constitutional protections for religious expression in public schools have been settled for a long time. The Biden administration’s guidance is in line with that from prior administrations from both parties, going back to the Clinton years.”
Read the full statement online.
The administration’s affirmation of core religious liberty principles comes at a time of uncertainty following the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton. There, the Court held that public school officials must accommodate a football coach’s religious exercise on the school’s field at the conclusion of games but while he was still on duty. As BJC noted at the time, the decision undermined religious freedom by failing to protect students against government pressures. In its wake, the Kennedy decision left significant questions about the extent to which those protections remain in place. Some state legislatures have taken full advantage of this uncertainty with new laws designed to promote religion in schools. In Texas, for example, there is proposed legislation that would require the posting of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom and allow unqualified chaplains to serve as guidance counselors.
The guidance from the Biden administration reassures parents and students that the Kennedy decision did not alter the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections. It emphasizes that although their private religious expression is protected, “teachers, coaches, and other public school officials acting in their official capacities may not lead students in prayer, devotional readings, or other religious activities, nor may they attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities or to refrain from doing so.”