Can I Say That? Can I Wear That?

How much can teachers disclose about their personal religious and nonreligious beliefs to students?

Editor’s note: This blog post expands upon the content presented in the webinar Religious Diversity in the Classroom: What’s law got to do with it? The webinar was the first in a five-part series conducted in collaboration with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. Play the recording and download the after-session pack here.

How much can teachers disclose about their personal religious and nonreligious beliefs to students? What should they do if, for example, a student asks about a religious symbol that they’re wearing? To find answers to the question “Can I say or wear that?” a useful starting point is to see what the law permits and what it does not.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers, including schools, to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee, unless doing so would create an undue hardship on the employer. Yet public schools must also comply with the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prevents employees from advocating a particular belief system in front of students. These two legal forces can, at times, come into conflict and create ambiguity and uncertainty for school personnel.

In their capacity as government representatives, public school teachers should strike a balance between exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion and maintaining religious neutrality in the classroom. Independent school teachers, as well as parochial school teachers whose faith differs from that of their school, must also be mindful of the fine line between sharing their religious identity and promoting their belief system.

May public school teachers discuss their religious identity and views with students?

What do you say when a student asks, “Do you believe in God?” or “What religion do you practice?” Coming up with an appropriate response can be a challenge. Teachers have a responsibility to encourage religious understanding and to avoid the impression that religion is a taboo subject. They also have a right to talk about their religious identity and views when directly asked by students, or within the context of class discussion; however, they need to do so in an objective manner that specifies the personal nature of their experiences and perspective.

A student’s age should be taken into account when formulating a response, especially because younger children are more likely to feel pressured into adopting an authority figure’s viewpoint. Also, they may be less inclined to distinguish a teacher’s identity from the school’s identity. It’s best to make absolutely clear that the student is in no way being taught to believe similarly or to conform to certain religious practices. Phrases such as “I believe that … ” or “In my tradition … ” help avoid the appearance of proselytizing.

May public school teachers wear religious clothing or jewelry to school?

Teachers can wear clothing or jewelry symbolizing their religious beliefs as long as the clothing or jewelry is not proselytizing or disruptive. However, the courts have often disagreed on the definitions of “proselytizing” and “disruptive” and ruled inconsistently on this issue. Some courts have weighted a teacher’s right to free expression more heavily than the Establishment Clause does, and others have done the reverse.

The First Amendment Center claims that case law usually permits “unobtrusive” jewelry, such as a cross or Star of David necklace, but not a T-shirt with a proselytizing message. For example, in Downing v. West Haven Board of Education (2001), a federal district court ruled in favor of high school administrators who had ordered a teacher to remove or cover up a T-shirt that read “JESUS 2000 — J2K.” The court argued that this teacher’s First Amendment rights must give way to the school’s Establishment Clause concerns. In other words, the teacher could not appear to be promoting a religion.

Even religious garb without a proselytizing message has been perceived by the courts as endorsing a particular faith. Federal courts have upheld laws in Pennsylvania and Oregon that prohibit teachers from wearing religious garb. In the Pennsylvania case, U.S. v. Board of Education (1990), a Muslim teacher and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had filed a Title VII religious discrimination suit because the teacher could not wear her headscarf (hijab) and long, loose dress to school. They argued that allowing such dress was a “reasonable accommodation,” but the court claimed that the state had a “compelling state interest” to preserve religious neutrality.

This case illustrates the subjectivity of the definition of religious neutrality and raises some difficult questions. Does wearing religious garb, like a hijab, detract from the religious neutrality of the classroom? How does prejudice and stereotyping influence legal decisions about religious neutrality? Are all religions treated equally?

May public school teachers pray in school?

As stated by the U.S. Department of Education, “When acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, teachers, school administrators, and other school employees are prohibited by the Establishment Clause from encouraging or discouraging prayer, and from actively participating in such activity with students.” In addition, they cannot engage in personal prayer while in the presence of students because students may perceive such activity as promoting religion.

On the other hand, when it’s clear that school employees are acting individually, such as during a lunch break or in a faith-based group that meets before or after school hours, they are within their rights to pray or otherwise express their religious beliefs.

Helpful Tips

So where do these laws and guidelines leave us? Given the complexity of the issue, teachers may find it helpful to consult fellow educators and their administration for guidance as they balance staying true to their belief systems (religious or nonreligious) in the classroom with following the law. Moving forward, you might find it helpful to keep in mind these simple tips:

  • Ask your school administration to provide clear guidelines about religious expression if they are not already well articulated.
  • Think ahead about what your students are already curious about and have a few prepared responses in mind.
  • Use “I” statements to be sure that students don’t misinterpret your personal views as representing the school or an entire religious group.
  • Be mindful of students’ ages because younger students tend to be more impressionable.
  • Put yourself in a parent’s shoes when considering how to share your religious identity and views with children.
  • Opt out respectfully if you don’t feel comfortable answering a question for any reason. You can simply say, “Thank you for asking me, but I’d rather not discuss it.”
  • Keep in mind your rights, as well as the legal responsibilities of educators, as you consider the place of your belief system in the classroom.

Marisa Fasciano is an Education Program Associate at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.