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Justice is a commodity which in a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service. -- Ambrose Bierce

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American Civil Liberties Union Briefer:
Ask Sybil Liberty

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


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 a hearing.

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 lawyer.

** 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 (1943)

** 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.


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 government.

** 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 all students.

** 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 discrimination.

** 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 abortion?

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.


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 gates."
-- 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!


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 orientation.

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 respected.

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 fight back.

** 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 action.

** 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 tracks.

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 you're taught.

** 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.


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 parochial schools).

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 class.

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 graduation?

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 away.

** 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 for help.

** Other than the standards you mentioned before, is there anything else school officials can turn to for constitutional guidance regarding religion?

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 unconstitutional.

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 religious practice.

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 students.

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 unconstitutional.

** People distribute Bibles at my school every year. Is that constitutional?

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 club.


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 be wrong.

** 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 education meeting."

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 stands.
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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