Are Bibles even allowed in public schools? That’s the question some people seem to be asking as conservative Christians push to have study of the Bible introduced as an elective course for public school students.
Why are some conservative Christians even pushing for Bible literacy in public schools? The answer may lie in the oft-contested claim that prayer and the Bible have been taken out of schools. But is that a factual claim?
Taking Bible and Payer Out of Schools
Back on June 18, 1963, the Supreme Court made it illegal for the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6; Luke 11) to be said and the Bible to be read in public schools. Specifically, the High Court ruled by and 8:1 vote that requiring religious exercises in public schools was unconstitutional.
“The question was whether prayers and religious practices in public schools were in violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment which forbids a government role in establishment of religion and Federal interference in individual freedom of conscience on religious issues,” according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency.
The 1963 ruling was about upholding the law of separation of church and state. The ruling did not impact individual rights.
What Students Can Do
While public schools cannot mandate that students pray or read the Bible (or any other religious book), the law does allow individual students to read the Bible and pray on their own time. This is a right protected by the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S. Department of Education lays out helpful guidelines on this in “Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools,”
The guidelines explain in one part that “… teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities. Nor may school officials attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities. Such conduct is “attributable to the State” and thus violates the Establishment Clause.”
The Education Department adds in its guidelines: “Although the Constitution forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer, students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate…'”
These laws protect not just Christian students, but also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and children of all faiths.
When Teachers Can Require Bible Reading
So in practicing their right to religious expression, public school students “may pray when not engaged in school activities or instruction…” In addition, students can “read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities.”
Public school officials, of course, can implement rules that might impact when students are able to pray and/or read their Bible, but they aren’t allowed to “discriminate against student prayer or religious speech in applying such rules and restrictions.” For example, if a student has out his or her Bible during class time set aside for math instruction, the teacher can demand the student put the Bible away.
On the other had, if a teacher is instructing students in world religions or literature, he or she certain can make the Bible (or Quran) a required text. Some may view this as walking a fine line, but as long as there is no religious instruction or discrimination/preference involved, public school teachers can make the Bible required reading for such classes.
To summarize: yes, students can read the Bible and pray at school.