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What general principles should public schools and religious communities follow when entering into a cooperative arrangement?

In these guidelines, a “cooperative arrangement” is defined as a shared participation in specific programs and activities in accordance with a written agreement. Before entering into a cooperative arrangement, public schools and religious communities should understand and accept the following principles:

  1. Under the First Amendment, public schools must be neutral concerning religion in all of their activities. School officials must take the necessary steps to ensure that any cooperative activities that take place are wholly secular. Persons invited to address students during the school day shall be advised of this requirement and must agree to abide by it before being allowed access to students.
  2. Students have the right to engage in, or decline to engage in, religious activities at their own initiative, so long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. School districts are urged to adopt policies that reflect recent consensus statements on current law concerning religion in public schools. “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law,” the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines on “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” and other consensus guidelines are available: Write to the First Amendment Center Online to request copies.
  3. Cooperative programs between religious institutions and the public schools are permissible only if:
    • Participation in programs is not limited to religious groups. That is, schools must be open to participation by all responsible community groups. Qualifications should not be established which have the practical effect of including only religious groups. Eligibility shall be stated in writing.
    • A student’s grades, class ranking or participation in any school program will not be affected by his or her willingness to participate or not participate in a cooperative program with a religious institution.
    • Student participation in any cooperative program may not be conditioned on membership in any religious group, acceptance or rejection of any religious belief, or participation (or refusal to participate) in any religious activity.

May religious leaders provide crisis counseling to students in public schools?

In times of sudden crisis (e.g., violent or accidental death of students or teachers), schools may call on a wide range of qualified counselors, including religious leaders, to assist school-employed counselors in helping children cope with the crisis at hand. Of course, religious leaders may not be the only grief counselors invited on campus during a crisis. Religious leaders may not otherwise be given routine access to students during the school day. Even when counseling to deal with a sudden crisis, religious leaders should remember that a public school is not a place for proselytizing or other overt religious activity.

To the extent that schools cooperate with adults who are important in a student's life (parents or other relatives, guardians, foster parents, social workers or neighbors) to help the child deal with school work, behavioral problems, or other issues, schools may also cooperate with an adult acknowledged by a student as his or her religious leader. However, a school may not in any way compel or coerce a student to speak to representatives of religious institutions.

May public schools cooperate with mentoring programs run by religious institutions?

Public schools may cooperate with mentoring projects run by religious institutions provided that:

  • Other community organizations are given an equal opportunity and are subject to the same secular selection criteria to operate such programs in partnership with the schools.
  • Referrals are made without regard to a student's religious beliefs or lack of them.
  • Participation in the program is not conditioned on mandatory participation, or refusal to participate, in religious programs operated by a religious institution.
  • At no time do school officials encourage or discourage student participation in the religious programs of religious institutions.

May schools use facilities owned by religious institutions?

Public schools may arrange to use the facilities of private landholders, including churches, temples, mosques or other religious institutions. Of course, all such facilities must meet applicable health and safety codes. But if the arrangement involves the use of sanctuaries, playgrounds, libraries or other facilities owned by religious groups, then the following First Amendment guidelines must be followed:

  1. The schools must have a secular educational purpose for seeking to use the facilities, such as after-school recreation, extended day care, homework study hall, etc.
  2. Where schools lease space from religious institutions for use as regular public school classrooms, the leased space is in effect a public school facility. Religious symbols or messages may not be displayed in the leased areas.
  3. Cooperative programs using the facilities of religious institutions must not afford an actual opportunity for proselytizing by clergy, school employees, or adult volunteers of any school children during the school-affiliated program. (Of course, the law is not violated if a cooperative program’s use of a religious facility coincidentally results in a student gaining an interest in attending worship services there. But the law prohibits clergy from leading devotions as part of the school program.)
  4. As stated above, religious symbols and messages may not be displayed in space leased from religious institutions for use as public-school classrooms. The rules are somewhat different for cooperative programs. A room bedecked with scriptural injunctions about repentance and salvation would not be appropriate for cooperative programs; a room with religious symbols or icons might well be.
  5. School officials may neither select nor reject the use of a private religious facility based on the popularity or unpopularity of its religious teachings. Religion-neutral criteria should be employed, e.g., proximity to the schools in question; suitability of the facility for the intended use; health and safety; comparative expenses (if any); accessibility for parent pickup or busing.
  6. The school's arrangement for use of a private religious facility should not involve or necessitate an ongoing administrative entanglement between the school district and the religious institution, in which one party ends up exerting influence over the content, scheduling or staffing of the other's activities.

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School prayer
Religious holidays
Student religious practices
Released time
Teaching about religion
Pledge of Allegiance & religious liberty in public schools
Religious clubs
Public schools & religious communities
Teachers' religious liberties
Bible in school
Distributing religious literature
Graduation ceremonies
Evolution & creation