Does Faith Have a Safe Place at School?
by Bret Eckelberry
Did you know the majority of students in the United States spend at least six hours per day in school? That’s a lot of time, and it presents a unique challenge to Christian students who spend that time in an environment that’s completely different than—or even contradicts—what they learn at home and at church. In many instances, public schools have become places that discourage or even punish expressions of faith. Students may feel they have no other choice but to check their faith at the door.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. We want to equip you, as a pastor, to empower your students to be bold and take ownership in living out and sharing their faith – wherever they may be. (As Focus on the Family’s Bring Your Bible to School Day approaches on Oct. 3, this is a timely issue!) With that in mind, here are three persistent myths you should know about and the reasons why they are simply not true.
Myth #1: Students cannot talk about their faith at school because of the ‘separation of church and state.’
Why it’s false: Students are not ‘agents of the state’; they are not speaking on behalf of the “government,” or even the public school.
The student is speaking as a private individual and has a right to voluntarily express a personal, faith-based viewpoint in a respectful manner. Court rulings have made it clear that public schools cannot ban student speech simply because it happens to have a religious perspective. So, the separation of church and state does not apply in this instance.
Students have every right to start conversations about their faith with friends at school, but it is important to remember that they must do so in a way that doesn’t disrupt instructional time. However, free-time periods such as lunch, recess, and other breaks are appropriate times to share.
Myth #2: Students cannot pray publicly at school.
Why it’s false: Student-initiated prayers are private, personal speech and protected by the Constitution.
Prayers are allowed as long as they are student-led (rather than being adult-led or school endorsed), aren’t disrupting academic instruction, and are voluntary—meaning no student feels coerced to participate. Aside from this, students have every right to pray over a meal or with friends.
Myth #3: Students cannot bring their Bibles with them to school.
Why it’s false: Students can bring other books from home to read at school, so they can also bring their Bibles (or other religious books) to read during free time and share with their peers.
In fact, students can even use the Bible in class assignments! As long as students do so in a way that is relevant to the subject the teacher has assigned and meets the requirements of the assignment, they have that freedom.
What else do I need to know?
While students have plenty of rights that provide them the opportunity to share their faith at school, there are some important things they should know NOT to do while expressing their faith.
First, students cannot disrupt instruction time. They cannot abuse their religious freedoms in a way that prevents the school from accomplishing its core mission of providing academic instruction. Students can’t use their freedoms as an excuse to be late or interrupt a teacher’s lesson plan. Generally speaking, it’s best for students to share their faith with classmates during breaks, lunch, recess, or before or after school.
Students also cannot harass other students. They do not have the right to force other students to listen to them. A good rule of thumb for students to remember is to have conversations not confrontations with their peers. We’re reminded of this principle in 1 Peter 3:15: “…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
Finally, students shouldn’t ignore school policies. While students don’t need permission to have faith-based conversations with other classmates, it is a good idea to check for applicable school policies or notify school officials when planning to distribute materials or advertise for a Christian club or event. Schools have the ability to enforce reasonable regulations, but they can’t enforce them in an inconsistent or biased way.
Here’s how you can help
As a pastor, you have an incredible influence in the lives of the kids at your church. Now that we’ve busted some of the myths that your students might face, you may be wondering if there is something that would help embolden them to express these freedoms at school. And there is!
Bring Your Bible to School Day is an annual, nationwide, and student-led event happening this year on Thursday, October 3. This event is designed to empower Christian students of all ages to take the lead in speaking God’s grace and truth into the culture around them by taking one simple step—bringing their Bible to school and talking about it with friends.
Bring Your Bible to School Day has grown so much over the past few years – more than half a million students participated last year – but we still need your help in getting the word out about this important event. To get started, simply go to www.BringYourBible.org/For-Pastors to find three easy ways to empower the youth in your church.
And new this year, those who register to participate will also be entered for a chance to win a trip to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.!
Bret Eckelberry serves as the Project Manager for Education Issues at Focus on the Family and helps facilitate Bring Your Bible to School Day. He and his wife live in Colorado.