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Religious Liberty in the Educational System of the United States

From the 1980s to the Present


Iwona Zamkowska

Nearly a third of religious liberty cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court addressed religion and education. Numbers that high, the problem definitely deserves consideration of international public. What were the main forces that shaped religious liberty in public education in one of its most formative periods? Did the introduction of religious liberty legal framework in public schools advance religious liberty of students as independent autonomous actors? The author discusses this cultural problem from a broad and complex perspective: both internationally recognized theory of a child’s religious freedom rights and the American models of religious liberty. To cover a wide spectrum of viewpoints, she analyses a broad selection of documents, from state and NGO publications to media coverage.

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Chapter 4 Religious Liberty of Students as the Participants of Educational Process in the Primary and Secondary Level Education: Personal and Voluntary Religious Practices


Apart from the rights of religious freedom that intersect with the school curriculum by definition, another substantial part of students’ rights is constituted by noncurriculum-related student religious expression such as prayer, wearing religious attire, and symbols at school as well as observing religious dietary requirements. The first two subchapters will be devoted to student prayer, starting with its most private and individual forms, such as prayer before meals and tests, up to the most public, and thus controversial ones, such as prayer at graduation and sports events. The next subchapter will discuss the issue of student-initiated and student-run prayer events on the school grounds on the example of the “See you at the pole” rallies. The two final subchapters will analyze the scope of students’ religious liberty in relation to religious attire and symbols as well as special dietary needs.

In the light of both legal provisions as well as the Department of Education guidelines, student-initiated expression is guaranteed constitutional protection as “private speech endorsing religion” under Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses (Board of Educ. v. Mergens, 1990), and thus free from the restrictions of the Establishment Clause. The idea is encapsulated in an oft quoted ruling of the Supreme Court stating that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”807

The principle is echoed in the New Consensus documents that promote the policy of noninhibition of student religious expression unless it is...

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