May students be excused from parts of the curriculum for religious reasons?
As good educational policy, school officials, whenever possible, should try to accommodate the requests of parents and students for excusal for religious reasons from specific classroom discussions or activities. In “A Parent’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools,” the National PTA and the First Amendment Center give the following advice concerning excusal requests:
If focused on a specific discussion, assignment, or activity, such requests should be routinely granted to strike a balance between the student’s religious freedom and the school’s interest in providing a well-rounded education. If it is proved that particular lessons substantially burden a student’s free exercise of religion and if the school cannot prove a compelling interest in requiring attendance, some courts may require the school to excuse the student.
It is important for teachers and administrators to ask themselves the questions posed in the Sherbert test as they make decisions about how to accommodate excusal requests.
Let’s look at one example of how the Sherbert test might be used in a public school: If parents ask for their child to be excused from reading a particular book for religious reasons, the teacher and administrator should first ask if the request is based on a sincere religious belief. Note that the religious belief need not be rational or even sensible to the school official. It need only be sincere. When parents and students take the time to object to a particular reading or activity, they are usually sincere. Next, school officials must determine whether or not reading the assigned book would constitute a “substantial burden” on the student’s religious liberty rights. This is more difficult to determine, but if the parent and student find the book deeply offensive to their religious beliefs, then making the student read the book might place a substantial burden on her religious freedom. One federal appeals court has ruled that merely exposing students to ideas that contradict their religious beliefs does not constitute a substantial burden on religious exercise (Mozet v. Hawkins County, 6th Cir. 1985).
If a student can prove that the school has placed a substantial burden on her sincere exercise of religion, then the inquiry shifts to the school. First, the school must show that it has a “compelling state interest” — described by the Supreme Court as “an interest of the highest order” (Wisconsin v. Yoder, 1972). Clearly, public schools have a compelling interest in the education and welfare of children. In this instance, for example, the school clearly has a compelling interest in teaching the student to read. But the last part of the test requires that the school pursue that interest in a manner least restrictive of a complaining student’s religion. Thus the school may have an interest in teaching the student to read, but can that interest be accomplished without making the student read that particular book? In other words, the school should choose a course of action that does not violate the student’s religion if such a course of action is available and feasible for the school.
This may be easy to do if a student and parent object to a particular reading assignment on religious grounds. When this happens, the teacher may simply assign an alternate selection. If, however, requests for exemption become too frequent or too burdensome for the school, a court will probably find the school’s refusal to offer additional alternatives to be justified.
May students form religious or political clubs in secondary public schools?
Yes, if the school allows other extracurricular (noncurriculum-related) groups. Although schools do not have to open or maintain a limited open forum, once they do, they may not discriminate against a student group because of the content of its speech.
The Equal Access Act (EAA), passed by Congress in 1984 and upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1990, makes it “unlawful for any public secondary school that receives federal funds and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”
The EAA covers student-initiated and student-led clubs in secondary schools with a limited open forum. According to the act, “non-school persons may not direct, conduct, or regularly attend activities of student groups.”
A “limited open forum” is created whenever a public secondary school provides an opportunity for one or more “noncurriculum related groups” to meet on school premises during noninstructional time. The forum created is said to be "limited" because only the school’s students can take advantage of it.
May students be released for off-campus religious instruction during the school day?
Yes. The Supreme Court has long recognized that public schools may choose to create off-campus released-time programs as a means of accommodating the needs of religious students and parents. The schools may not encourage or discourage participation or penalize students who do not attend.