PREMIUM LEGAL RESOURCES
ASK A LAWYER
American Civil Liberties Union Briefer:
Ask Sybil Liberty
Sybil says: SPEAK OUT! ORGANIZE! GET INVOLVED!
We spend a big part of our life in school, so. . .let's make a difference
* join the student government
* attend school board meetings
* petition the school administration.
* debate among yourselves
YOUR RIGHT TO DUE PROCESS
Students, listen up:
An important part of our education is learning how to participate fully
in the life of this nation. In order to participate, we need to keep in
mind two very important things. First, the Constitution is the highest
law of this land. Second, the Constitution has a Bill of Rights that
protects the freedom of each and every American. That includes you and
me, the young people of this country. So my message to you is KNOW YOUR
RIGHTS and EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS.
The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees everyone in the United States --
young people included-- the right to "due process of law." This means
you have the right to be treated fairly by people who are in positions of
authority, such as teachers, school administrators or the police. For
example, if a teacher or school official accuses you of having done
something wrong and wants to suspend you, you have the right to a hearing
so you can tell your side of the story. This right was recognized in
1975 by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case called Goss v. Lopez,
which involved some high school students who had been suspended without
Your right to due process also means that if you're found guilty of
something, the punishment can't be more serious than the misconduct was.
In other words, you can't be expelled for a minor violation, or for doing
something for which other kids just got detention.
Keep in mind that if you go to a private school, your due process rights
may be different since private schools have a lot more freedom to make
their own rules. Also, remember that the laws in your state may give you
other protections in addition to what the federal Constitution provides.
You can find out about your state's laws from your local ACLU office.
** What are my rights if I'm about to be suspended?
SYBIL: If you're facing a suspension of any length of time, you have the
right to notice of the charges against you. "Notice" means being told
exactly what you did that was wrong. You also have a right to a hearing
before a person or people who're impartial -- they don't have any kind of
attitude towards you, one way or the other. If you're facing serious
punishment, like suspension for more than 10 days, then you have the
right to be represented by a lawyer, who can call witnesses; to question
or cross- examine your accusers and the witnesses against you, and to
have a record made of everything that happens at the hearing for you to
use if you want to appeal the decision.
** Do I have the right to a hearing every time my principal or teacher
wants to punish me?
SYBIL: No, not every time. The general rule is that you have the right
to a hearing for serious punishments but not for minor ones. For
example, if your teacher makes you sit at the back of the class for being
noisy, you're not entitled to a hearing. But you are entitled to one if
your teacher recommends suspending you.
** Doesn't the school have to let me know what I've been accused of
before suspending or expelling me?
SYBIL: It sure does. As I said before, you have the right to a hearing
for any serious punishment. At the very least, the school has to give
you written or oral notice of the charges against you. If you deny the
charges, they have to tell you what evidence they have and give you a
chance to tell your side of the story. The only way they can suspend or
expel you without notice or a hearing is if they think you are a danger
to other students or to school property. But even in that case, they
should give you notice or a hearing as soon as possible after they have
kicked you out.
** What can I be suspended for, anyway?
SYBIL: It really depends on what state you live in, since each state has
its own laws about a public school's authority to suspend students. Most
school officials regard suspension as an extreme punishment and use it
only as a last resort. Often, they don't suspend unless a student does
something illegal, dangerous or disruptive. The same goes for expulsion,
although in a lot of states expulsion is illegal based on the principle
that everyone has the right to an education.
** What if a cop or a teacher starts grilling me in school -- do I have
to answer their questions?
SYBIL: No you don't. Even in school, "you have the right to remain
silent...." Sometimes there's nothing wrong with your answering a few
questions just to clear up something, but in general my advice to is
this: If you get the impression that the teacher or the cop suspects you
of having committed a crime, don't explain, don't lie, don't confess.
Tell them you're not going to talk until you speak with your parents or a
** What if I'm stopped by the police outside of school?
SYBIL: If a cop stops you on the street and tells you that you're a
suspect in a crime, tell him or her immediately that you want a lawyer.
Never, never try to talk your way out of whatever it is. Always ask for
an attorney, and don't give any information except your I.D. It's legal
for the cop to frisk you for weapons. If the cop asks to search you
and/or your car, don't resist the search but make it clear that you're
not consenting to it.
** I'm under 18. What happens if I'm arrested?
SYBIL: In most states, young people under 18 are treated as "juveniles";
they're not handled through the regular criminal justice system. This
means you have the right to get in touch with a parent or guardian as
soon as you're arrested. And in most states, you can be released into
the custody of your parents, a guardian or a probation officer instead of
being held at a detention center. In most states, you would get a
hearing in juvenile court rather than in adult criminal court, although
in some states -- New York, for example -- you have to be under 16 to go
to juvenile court. If you're charged, given a hearing and convicted of a
crime, you could be sentenced to a probation period, an educational or
rehab program or time in a juvenile prison. Also, your school will be
told if you were arrested for a violent or drug-related crime.
"The Fourteenth Amendment protects the citizen against the state itself
and all of its creatures -- Boards of Education not excepted."
-- U.S. Supreme Court - West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette
** Isn't it illegal for a teacher to hit me?
SYBIL: In at least 21 states, corporal punishment -- that's what it's
called when teachers punish kids by hitting them -- is totally banned.
Some states allow it in their school systems, but only under certain
circumstances and only if the physical punishment isn't "unreasonable and
unnecessary" or "excessive." A teacher is certainly not supposed to hurt
you, so if one does then contact your local ACLU.
A lot of adults have sense enough to know that hitting students is
harmful and definitely not the way to make us learn, and there's an
organized movement to ban corporal punishment nationwide.
Your local ACLU can answer any questions you may have about your right to
due process in school and your other constitutional rights.
YOUR RIGHT TO PRIVACY
In a lot of our public schools, drugs and violence are serious problems
that make it hard for teachers to teach, and for us to learn. Coming up
with effective solutions to these problems is a tough assignment for even
the best school administrators. Unfortunately, some school officials
adopt "solutions" that abuse students' constitutional rights. For
example, they search us, install video cameras in our classrooms, or
plant undercover cops in the hallways and washrooms, to spy on us. Such
measures treat us more like prisoners than students.
Remember: The Fourth Amendment guarantees you a right to privacy and the
right not to have your privacy invaded by "unreasonable searches and
seizures." It also protects your freedom to make certain decisions about
your body and your life in private, without interference from the
** Sybil, what if I'm just hanging out in the hall and a teacher tells
me to empty out my pockets. Do I have to do it?
SYBIL: Your teacher is supposed to follow the student search guidelines
established by the United States Supreme Court in 1985, in a case called
_New Jersey v. T.L.O_. The Court said that although school officials
don't have to get a search warrant before searching you, your teacher or
the principal can't search you without having a specific, good reason to
suspect that you, in particular -- not just "someone" -- broke a law or a
school rule. That principle is known as "individualized suspicion."
AND... they must conduct the search in a "reasonable" way, based on your
age and what they're looking for. For example, if a teacher thinks he
saw you selling drugs to another student, he can stop you, pat you down,
empty your pockets and search your knapsack or your car -- if it's parked
on school grounds.
** You mean teachers can't search every student in a class because they
think some of us have drugs?
SYBIL: No, no and no. Just because school officials have information
that *some* students have drugs doesn't give them the authority to search
** What about a strip search?
SYBIL: Strip searching of public school students by school officials is
illegal in many states, and in others it's allowed but only under certain
conditions -- like when there's a solid reason to suspect a particular
student of having committed a *very* serious crime.
** What about the police -- can they search me on the school grounds?
SYBIL: Yes, but police are held to an even higher standard than your
teacher or principal: They have to go to court and get a search warrant
from a judge. So if the cops want to search you, you tell them "no way"
unless they either *arrest* you or show you a warrant. The warrant has
to have your name or an accurate description of you on it, and it has to
state what evidence the cops are looking for and where they think they're
going to find it.
** Can my locker be searched?
SYBIL: In some states, courts have ruled that your locker belongs to the
school, not to you, so the school can search it. But courts in other
states have said school officials must have "reasonable suspicion" that
you're hiding something illegal before they can search your locker.
Check with your local ACLU to find out what the law is in your state.
And give yourself a break: Don't keep anything in your locker that you
don't want other people to see.
** Can my school make me take a blood or urine test to find out if I use
drugs, or a breathalyzer test for alcohol?
SYBIL: A drug or alcohol test is a search, but it depends what state you
live in whether the officials in your school have to have "reasonable
suspicion" that you're a user before they can make you take a test.
The ACLU has a problem with random testing programs, where officials test
a few individuals or force a whole class to be tested just because they
suspect that someone -- but nobody, in particular -- is doing drugs.
Students all over the country have challenged such programs, but while
the courts in some states have found them unconstitutional, they've said
they're okay in others. Your local ACLU will give you the word on school
drug testing in your state.
** Can my school use metal detectors to check for weapons?
SYBIL: In many states, yes, because requiring someone to pass through a
metal detector is regarded as less an invasion of privacy than are frisks
or other kinds of searches. Still, some states recommend that school
officials follow certain guidelines to protect students' rights.
California, for example, allows metal detectors in its schools, but they
can't be used selectively just on certain students. That would be
** Sybil, you said my right to privacy includes the freedom to make
certain decisions about my body -- like deciding whether to have sex or
have babies. Can you tell me where to go for a pregnancy test, medical
care if I'm pregnant or an abortion?
SYBIL: You go to the nearest family planning clinic. If you can't find a
clinic, call your local ACLU to get the name of one. Family planning
clinics will give you birth control information, counseling and a
pregnancy test, and some clinics also perform abortions and provide
prenatal care. If the clinic you go to doesn't have one or more of the
services you want, ask them to refer you to a place that does.
** Can I get birth control supplies without my parents being told?
SYBIL: What you do or don't do with your body is nobody's business but
yours. But you should be aware that although a doctor can legally write
you a prescription for birth control, he or she doesn't have to. Also, a
doctor has the choice of telling or not telling your parents, so you
should ask what his or her policy is. Your school may provide birth
control supplies. Check it out.
** Would my parents and boyfriend have to be told if I decided to get an
SYBIL: First of all, it's your constitutional right to have an abortion -
- be clear about that. *No* state requires you to seek your boyfriend's
approval, but some states have laws that require young women under the
age of 18 to get permission from their parents, or to tell their parents
about the abortion. If you *can't* tell your parents, you may be able to
go to court and ask the judge to drop the parental notification
requirement in your particular case. Your local ACLU office can refer
you to a family planning counselor who will help you.
** Suppose I want to be tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Can
I get tested without my parents knowing? Does *anyone* have to know?
SYBIL: Some states require that your parents be notified before you get
tested or get treatment. Your local ACLU can inform you about how the
laws in your state apply to HIV testing of minors, and where you can get
tested without anyone knowing. By the way: If your school or employer is
trying to *force* you to be tested for HIV, YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE.
Your local ACLU office can answer any questions you may have about your
right to privacy in school and your other constitutional rights.
YOUR RIGHT TO EXPRESS YOURSELF FREELY
The First Amendment guarantees our right to free expression and free
association, which means we have the right to think what we like, say
what we like and write what we like; we can form clubs and organizations,
and take part in demonstrations and rallies. We have the right to do all
of that, not only in our homes or on the street, but also in school.
Keep in mind, though, that private schools have more leeway to set their
own rules on free expression than public schools do.
** Sybil, you mean I can speak my mind *in school*?
SYBIL: Yes you can. You have a constitutional right to express your
opinions and beliefs in school, as long as you do so in a way that
doesn't disrupt classes or other school activities. If you hold a
protest on the school steps and block the entrance to the building, then
school officials can stop you. They can also stop you from using
language that they think is "vulgar or obscene," so you'll have an easier
time if you can say what you have to say without using "bad" words or
sexual references. The main point is that your right to free speech is
*absolute* unless the principal can prove that you are "materially and
substantially" disrupting the work and routine of the school.
** Some friends of mine and I want to hand out copies of a newspaper we
put together -- our own paper. Can we do that?
SYBIL: You sure can. You have a right to hand out your paper, even if it
contains some unpopular viewpoints, without interference from the
principal or teachers. Again, the only reason school officials would be
justified in stopping you is if you're disrupting school activities in a
serious way. I have to tell you, though, dealing with controversial
topics in the _official school paper_ can be sticky.
** You mean if I wanted to publish an article in the school paper that
calls for sex education and condom distribution, or an article on drug
abuse, I might have a problem?
SYBIL: Right. Even though your article discusses something important
that a lot of people are talking about, you might have a problem because
of a decision the U.S. Supreme Court handed down in 1988. The Court
ruled, in a case called _Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier_, that
public school administrators can censor student speech in official school
activities -- like a school play, art exhibit, newspaper or yearbook --
if the administrators think what the students are saying is
"inappropriate" or "harmful."
Of course, you have a right to that "inappropriate" or "harmful"
viewpoint and you *can* express it, but only through unofficial channels
that aren't paid for by the school -- like your own paper, leaflets or
buttons that you created and paid for. As long as your expression
doesn't involve school money or cause a disruption, it's okay.
Fortunately, some states -- including Colorado, California, Iowa, Kansas
and Massachusetts -- have "High School Free Expression" laws that protect
students' free speech rights. Check with your local ACLU to find out if
your state has such a law.
** Suppose one of my teachers is always late to class; he makes
insulting remarks to us; he's halfhearted about his work, and I don't
like it. Can I write about him in the school paper?
SYBIL: Definitely. It's your right to criticize how the people who run
your school do their jobs. But your criticism has to be responsible and
not "libelous." If you print something about your teacher that you know
isn't true just to make him or her look bad, that's *libel* and you could
get in trouble.
** Can I wear buttons or other non-verbal symbols in school to express
what I think?
SYBIL: Yes, you can wear buttons or T-shirts with messages on them as
long as they're not disruptive -- and by the way, just because someone
doesn't like the message doesn't mean you're being disruptive. This
right was recognized by the Supreme Court in 1969 in a case called
_Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District_. In that
case, the Court ruled that high school students could wear black arm
bands to school to protest the Vietnam War.
More recently, in 1992, a federal court ruled in favor of three
California high school seniors represented by the ACLU, who were
suspended for wearing gang symbols while they were being photographed for
the school yearbook. The court said wearing the symbols didn't cause a
major disruption and was protected by the First Amendment.
** Can I dress or wear my hair any way I want when I'm at school?
SYBIL: That depends on the laws in your state. In some states, courts
have ruled that students can wear their hair however they want as long as
the hairstyle isn't a safety hazard (for example, if your hair is very
long you'd have to tie it back during a science experiment). Courts in
other states have allowed schools to impose hair codes, and where hair
codes are permitted, so are dress codes. Some schools say they need
these codes to prevent gang activity and violence. Check with your local
ACLU about the laws in your state.
If your school has hair and dress codes you think are unfair and you want
to challenge them, just be aware that a court probably won't overturn the
codes unless the judge finds that they're really unreasonable, or that
they discriminate against certain students.
** Can I be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance?
SYBIL: No. Some people don't want to say the Pledge on religious
grounds, because they disagree with the words in some way or as a silent
protest against our government's foreign or domestic policies. You have
the right to sit or stand silently during the Pledge if you choose.
** Can I pray in school?
SYBIL: Absolutely. You can pray on the school grounds as a private
activity -- for example, in a classroom between classes or in the
cafeteria before you eat lunch. But the Constitution forbids school
officials from imposing *any* religion on students by dictating when and
where they can pray, or by making prayer a part of the school curriculum.
"It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their
constitutional rights to freedom of speech . . . at the schoolhouse
-- U.S. Supreme Court - Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)
** My school library doesn't have certain books because my principal
thinks they're "inappropriate" for us. Is that censorship?
SYBIL: It's censorship if the principal's reasons for not allowing the
books are "narrowly partisan or political," meaning he just doesn't agree
with the authors' viewpoints. In a 1982 case called _Board of Education,
Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico_, the Supreme
Court ruled that the members of a school board couldn't remove books from
a school library just because they didn't agree with their content. But
in many communities around the country, school administrators and
librarians are under heavy pressure from religious groups to censor what
kids read and study.
I say: No one has any business deciding what we can and cannot read.
You, your teachers and the school librarian can challenge book censorship
at your school in court. The freedom to read is the freedom to think.
That's something worth fighting for!
YOUR RIGHT TO EQUAL TREATMENT
Our public education system exists to provide an education to *all*
students, equally. This principle was established as the law of the land
by the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case called _Brown v. Board
of Education_. The Constitution guarantees your right not to be
discriminated against in school based on your race, ethnic background,
religion or sex, and regardless of whether your family is rich or poor.
In addition to that constitutional protection, lots of federal, state and
local laws also protect students against discrimination based on
disability, pregnancy and sexual orientation.
** Sybil, the coach wouldn't let me join the soccer team just because
I'm a girl. Can he do that?
SYBIL: Sports programs in public schools aren't allowed to discriminate
against girls or boys, which means that a sports activity can't be
offered only to boys or only to girls. Some schools make exceptions for
contact sports like football, or where students have to compete with each
other on the basis of skill for places on a particular team. In most
places, a school can set up separate teams for girls and boys as long as
the sport is offered to both sexes.
** I'm gay and I want to bring a guy, as my date, to the senior prom.
Can school officials say no to that?
SYBIL: They might, although in the one case where this issue came before
a court, the court ruled that preventing a gay student from bringing his
male date to a school dance violated his rights. Whether you're lesbian,
gay or straight, as a public school student you're entitled to the same
privileges as any other student, and school officials aren't supposed to
violate your rights just because they may not like your sexual
Unfortunately, while a small (though increasing) number of states and
municipalities have passed laws that forbid discrimination based on
sexual orientation, public high schools have been slow to establish their
own anti-bias codes and slow to respond to incidents of harassment and
discrimination against lesbian and gay students. So even though, in
theory, you can take a guy to the prom, join or help form a gay group at
school or write an article about lesbian/gay issues for the school paper,
in practice gay students still have to fight hard to have their rights
If you feel you're being mistreated by students, teachers or the school
administration because you're gay, your local ACLU can tell you how to
** What if I'm pregnant, Sybil? Can I be kept out of school?
SYBIL: No. School officials are not allowed to keep you from attending
classes, graduation ceremonies, extracurricular activities or any other
school activity -- except maybe a strenuous sport. There's a federal law
called Title IX (9) of the Education Amendments of 1972 that bans schools
from discriminating against married or pregnant students. You have as
much right to a high school education as any other student.
** I truly believe my teacher gives me a hard time just because I'm a
person of color. Is there anything I can do to change that?
SYBIL: Yes there is, and you *should* do something. The federal
Constitution, state constitutions *and* various federal and state laws
all forbid the personnel and administrators at your school from
discriminating against you because of your race, the country you or your
family came from originally or your religion. If you feel that you or
someone you know is being discriminated against, speak up: Talk to a
teacher, the principal, the head of a community organization or a lawyer
so they can investigate the situation. If necessary, you can take legal
** I tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Do I have the
right to be treated the same as other students?
SYBIL: Yes! The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people
with HIV disease against discrimination in schools and in many other
"public accommodations," such as stores, museums and hotels. This means
you have the right to go to school like any other student.
It's a medical fact that the AIDS virus can't be spread through casual
contact. That's why the ADA, as well as other federal and local laws,
forbid discrimination against people like yourself. You're not a threat
to other people's health just by having HIV or AIDS. If you think your
school is discriminating against you because you're HIV-positive, contact
your local ACLU for information about what legal action you should take.
** My school uses a tracking system, and most of the kids in the bottom
tracks are from poor and minority families. Isn't that discrimination?
SYBIL: It sure looks that way, doesn't it? Almost all public schools
have tracking systems that're supposed to separate students according to
learning ability, but studies have revealed that factors other than
learning ability may be determining which of us get placed in which
The standards and tests school officials use in deciding on track
placements are often based on racial and class prejudices and
stereotypes, rather than on our real abilities and learning potential.
As a result, it's usually the white, middle-class kids who end up in the
college prep classes, while poor and non-white students, and kids whose
first language isn't English, end up in "slow" tracks and vocational-
training classes. And often, the lower the track you're in, the less
** Can I challenge my placement in a particular track?
SYBIL: If it's not the track you want to be in, you should. All the
tracks are supposed to give the same courses -- the higher tracks on a
more advanced level, the lower tracks on a less advanced level but,
basically, the same education. If the track they put you in gives you a
completely different education than you would get in the highest track,
then make an issue of it.
Even if you have low grades or nobody in your family ever went to
college, if you want to go to college then you should demand the type of
education you need to realize your dreams. And your guidance counselor
should help you get it! Your local ACLU can tell you the details of how
to go about challenging your track placement.
"The opportunity of an education. . .is a right which must be made
available to all on equal terms."
-- U.S. Supreme Court - Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
** I'm not an American citizen. Do I have the same constitutional
rights citizens have?
Yes! If you're a permanent resident -- that is, a "green card" holder --
or even if you're in the U.S. illegally, you're still entitled to the
same constitutional protections an American citizen receives. All of the
rights set forth in the Constitution's Bill of Rights are guaranteed to
*all* people living in this country, regardless of their nationality or
citizenship status. And even if you're not a citizen, you have the right
to a free public education -- which means the administrators of your
school can't treat you any differently from any other student.
YOUR RIGHT TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Religious liberty the right of each and every American to practice his
or her own religion, or no religion at all is among the most
fundamental of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The
principle of religious liberty, because it is built into our
Constitution, has kept the United States relatively free of the kind of
religious conflict that has torn many nations apart. The founders of
this country, who were themselves of different religious beliefs and
backgrounds, thought that the best way to protect religious liberty in
their new nation was to keep the government out of religion. That's why
they created the First Amendment. In addition to guaranteeing free
speech and a free press, the First Amendment says that the government
"... shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . ."
Both parts of this guarantee of religious liberty, the Establishment
Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, apply to public schools since public
schools are part of the government (they don't apply to private and
The Establishment Clause guarantees the separation of church and state by
prohibiting the government from supporting or promoting religion in any
way. The government can't "establish" Christianity or any other religion
as the official religion of the United States; it can't provide financial
support for any religion, and it can't promote or endorse any religious
beliefs or practices. The Free Exercise Clause means that you are free
to worship as you choose, and that the government can't penalize you
because of your religious beliefs.
In a series of decisions dating back to the early 1960s, the courts have
created the following constitutional standards that public schools are
supposed to respect when it comes to religion:
Schools cannot plan or sponsor religious observances or prayers.
Schools cannot promote religious beliefs or practices as part of the
curriculum, but they can teach about the roles and influences of religion
in history, literature and philosophy.
Students are free to pray on their own or otherwise express their
religious beliefs in school, so long as they don't cause a disruption in
Students can be excused from some school activities but not from
academic courses if those activities conflict with their religious
beliefs. For example, if you're a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who
oppose saluting the flag, then you can't be forced to salute the flag.
** Sybil, Can teachers start off the school day with a prayer, a reading
from the scriptures or a moment of silence?
No, they can't. The Supreme Court has ruled that prayers, scriptural
readings and even moments of silence are unconstitutional in public
schools because they amount to government promotion of a religious belief
or practice. Even if the school has described the prayer as "non-
denominational," the government is still promoting religion in violation
of the First Amendment.
** Can my school invite a member of the clergy to give a nonsectarian
prayer at graduation?
Prayers at graduations used to be common, but in 1992 the Supreme Court
ruled that the practice violates the Establishment Clause because it
forces all graduating students, including non-believers, to participate
in a government-sponsored religious exercise. This important ruling came
in a case called Lee v. Weisman. The Court explained that including a
prayer in the graduation ceremony, whether the prayer was led by a
minister, a priest or a rabbi, would give any student who objected "a
reasonable perception that she is being forced by the State to pray in a
manner her conscience will not allow." That's exactly what the First
Amendment is supposed to prevent.
** Is it constitutional if students vote to have a student-led prayer at
No, it isn't. Think about it: Letting students make the decision to have
a student deliver a prayer doesn't make the graduation ceremony any less
a school-sponsored event, does it? And while a majority of students may
vote to pray in a certain way, the minority of students who hold
different beliefs, or no religious beliefs at all, will feel excluded
from their own graduation exercises. The thing to understand is that
where fundamental freedoms, like freedom of speech and freedom of
religion, are concerned, the principle of "majority rule" doesn't apply.
Those freedoms belong to each of us no matter what they cannot be voted
** Could my school hold a separate graduation event, like a
baccalaureate, for students who want to pray?
The school itself could not sponsor such an alternative event, but
student, parent or church groups could off of school grounds.
** Is it ever okay to pray in school?
Sure. Individual students have the right to pray whenever they want to,
as long as they don't disrupt classroom instruction or other educational
activities. For example, a student can say grace before eating lunch or
pray before taking an exam. If a school official has told you that you
can't pray at all during the school day, then your free speech and free
exercise rights are being violated and you should contact your local ACLU
** Other than the standards you mentioned before, is there anything else
school officials can turn to for constitutional guidance regarding
Actually, there is. In instances where school officials aren't quite
sure about a policy they have adopted or are considering, they can give
it the "Lemon Test," which takes its name from a 1971 Supreme Court
decision in a case called Lemon v. Kurtzman. A public school policy that
fails any one of the following three parts of the Lemon Test is
The policy must have a non-religious purpose. Example: In 1985, the U.S.
Supreme Court struck down Alabama's moment-of-silence law because the
whole point of the law was to encourage prayer, which is a clearly
The policy must not have the effect of promoting or favoring any set of
religious beliefs. For example, putting up a Christmas display in school
that includes such religious symbols as a creche sends a message that the
school prefers students whose religions celebrate Christmas over other
The policy must not overly "entangle" the school with religion. Suppose
some graduating seniors and their parents decided to hold a religious
baccalaureate service before graduation exercises at a local church, and
the school principal took it upon him - or herself to review the content
of the service ahead of time. That would "excessively entangle" the
school with religious matters beyond what the constitution allows.
** My school often holds holiday parties. Is that constitutional?
It depends. A holiday event that includes making Christmas stockings,
Easter eggs or valentines is probably okay because, while those
activities used to be associated with a religious tradition, over the
years they've become secular customs that young people of many different
backgrounds enjoy. But a Nativity pageant, which is full of religious
meaning, or a school concert that featured only religious music would be
** People distribute Bibles at my school every year. Is that
No. The distribution of Bibles during the school day definitely violates
the Establishment Clause. Even if teachers don't actually participate in
handing out the Bibles, and even if the Bibles are not used as part of
the school's educational program, the public school building or grounds
are still being used to spread religious doctrine at a time students are
required to be there.
** Can I organize a Bible club at school?
Yes, the Supreme Court has ruled that student-organized Bible clubs are
allowed if several conditions are met. First, the activity must take
place during non-school hours; Bible club or prayer meetings during
regular school hours would violate the Establishment Clause. Second, the
school must make its facilities available to all student groups on an
equal basis. If your Bible club is the only group allowed to have access
to the school grounds, then that violates the Establishment Clause. Vice
versa, if the school lets other student groups use the building for
meetings and events but won't grant your Bible club the same privilege,
then your right to free speech is being violated. Third, school
officials cannot have anything to do with organizing or running the Bible
MEET SOME REAL-LIFE SYBIL LIBERTIES
Demanding that your school respect constitutional principles takes
courage and conviction. Rules and practices that don't respect the
rights of everyone are often supported by a majority of students,
teachers or parents, and going against the grain of any majority can be
very difficult. Meet some students who had the courage to defend the
Constitution by taking a stand against school practices they believed to
** My name is Sarah E. Coles. In the summer of 1992 when I was 14, the
school board in Cleveland, Ohio, where I live, invited me to attend a
meeting to be recognized for the high scores I had gotten on a
standardized test. I felt really proud of myself.
I took a seat at the meeting, expecting that it would begin with
something like a welcome. Instead, it began with a prayer.
I was shocked. Prayers at a school board meeting? I couldn't believe
it. In the middle of the prayer, I found myself saying out loud, "What's
going on here? They aren't supposed to be doing this at a board of
We learned at school about the separation of church and state. We were
taught that all people have the right to believe in their own way, as
long as it doesn't harm others. Isn't it important that the school
system respect the Constitution that it teaches us to respect?
As I sat there at the meeting, I thought: What if I were a Buddhist or a
Muslim? How would it feel to be invited to a meeting, only to be
offended by your host? The board ought to stop opening its meetings with
prayers, I thought, and instead make the meetings free of barriers and
open to all.
Together with others who felt as I did, I asked the board to drop the
prayer from its meetings, but they said they wouldn't. We then consulted
with our local ACLU. With the ACLU's help, we filed a lawsuit against
the school board, asking for an end to the practice. The Cleveland Plain
Dealer published a statement I wrote about the issue.
Our case is still pending, but whatever the outcome I believe the school
board ought to live by what it teaches.
** Hi, I'm Deborah Weisman. My involvement with the issue of
church/state separation began in 1986 when my older sister, Merith, was
graduating from junior high in Providence, Rhode Island. I'll never
forget how uncomfortable I felt when a Baptist minister led us in a
prayer at the ceremony. I had always felt that religion is important and
has its place, but I didn't think a public school was that place. My
parents sent the school a letter that was never answered.
Three years later, just before my own eighth grade graduation, my parents
called the school to bring up the prayer issue again. A teacher told
them, "We got you a rabbi." They thought we objected to the minister
just because we're Jewish! But a rabbi wouldn't have made it any better:
Prayer in public school was what we objected to. The school board told
us that graduation prayer was a tradition. If we had a problem with the
practice, they said, we could sue. And that's just what we did. The
ACLU of Rhode Island assigned us a lawyer, who asked the federal court to
order the school board to stop having graduation prayers. The court
ruled in our favor, the school board appealed, we won again, and the
school board appealed again this time to the U.S. Supreme Court. The
Supreme Court hears less than five percent of the cases brought before
it, so we were surprised when it agreed to hear our case.
Almost three years after my eighth grade graduation and nine days after
my high school commencement (where there was no prayer), we won: When a
public school sponsors a prayer of any faith, the Supreme Court said, it
violates the First Amendment.
Throughout the years of waiting for a ruling, we were harassed by hate
mail and even death threats, and the media attention often bothered me.
But I was encouraged by the support we received from friends, and at no
time did I regret having taken our case to court. What amazes me is that
it only took me and my family to make a difference.
** Josh Berger is my name. I'm from Rensselaer, Indiana. When I was
ten and in the fifth grade, my dad wrote a letter to my school
complaining about the fact that the Gideon Society distributed Bibles in
the school every year. The Gideons are very up front about wanting to
convert people to their type of Christianity. My family is an interfaith
family my dad is Jewish and my mother is Protestant so they're very
particular about the kind of religious teaching they want for me and my
sister. Although I usually go with my mom to the church where she's an
elder, religion is a personal matter in our house.
My dad expected that his complaint would settle things. He never thought
he would have to go to court. But when the school responded in a hostile
way, he went to the ACLU for help in filing suit. At the trial, the
school superintendent testified that the school wasn't really pushing any
type of religion by letting the Gideons distribute their Bibles because,
she said, anyone could walk into the school and pass out religious
materials if they wanted to. My mom, who's a teacher in the school
district, knew that wasn't true. She knew the school officials would not
have allowed any other kinds of religious materials to be distributed.
Two older kids who are friends of mine testified for our side.
Even though our town is a rural place where people don't like to make
waves, many of the neighbors, teachers and churchpeople supported us.
None of the kids stopped being friends with me, even though some of their
parents disagreed with us.
We won our lawsuit. After the federal district court ruled in favor of
the school, the appellate court overturned that ruling and agreed with us
that the Bible distribution was unconstitutional. Since the U.S. Supreme
Court refused the school's request to review the case, our victory
Knowing your rights and helping to educate others about theirs are proven
ways of protecting religious liberty for all. For more information,
contact your local ACLU.
excerpted from material produced by the Public Education Department
American Civil Liberties Union
132 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
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