A middle school girl is sent to the principal’s office. Why? Not because she was talking too much in class or chewing gum. No, she was in trouble because she had a picture of Jesus on her notebook. This true story happened a few years ago in the Phoenix area.

That’s why Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) is committed to defending and promoting religious freedom for students in K-12 public schools, both district and charter. Students do not lose their constitutional rights simply by stepping on the public school campus.

Students’ Religious Liberty Act:

In 2009, CAP worked with the Arizona Legislature to pass the Students’ Religious Liberty Act (ARS 15-110), clarifying the constitutional rights that students have in public schools. First and foremost, school officials may “not discriminate against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.”

Under the Act:

  • Students may express their religious beliefs in school assignments without being penalized or rewarded on the basis of their religious content or viewpoint. The student’s work will be judged by “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance to the course curriculum or requirements of the assignment or coursework.”
  • Students “may pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression, before, during and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression.”
    • This means students can pray, read their Bibles, share their faith, and engage in other religious activities during recess, lunch hour, or any other non-instructional time, as long as they are not disrupting school order.
  • Students may “wear clothing, accessories and jewelry that display religious messages or religious symbols in the same manner and to the same extent that other types of clothing, accessories and jewelry that display messages or symbols are permitted.”
    • For example, if students are allowed to wear T-shirts with sports team logos and non-religious messages, the school may not prohibit T-shirts with religious symbols or messages.

If a student or parent believes the student’s rights under the Act have been violated:

  • First, the student or the student’s parent must submit a complaint in writing with the specific facts of the alleged violation to the principal. The principal must investigate the complaint and respond in writing, including a description of any action taken to resolve the complaint.
  • Second, if the principal’s action does not resolve the complaint, the student or the student’s parent must submit a complaint in writing with the specific facts of the alleged violation to the superintendent or designated administrator. They must investigate the complaint and respond in writing, including a description of any action taken to resolve the complaint.
  • Third, if the action taken by the superintendent or designated administrator does not resolve the complaint, the student or the student’s parent may pursue legal action to enforce the Act.

Students in Public School May Also:

  • Distribute religious literature and fliers on campus. Students are generally free to distribute tracts or fliers during the school day, subject to reasonable restrictions (on time, place, and manner) that apply equally to religious and non-religious materials. Schools may prohibit literature distribution during class instruction.
  • Start or participate in a student religious club on campus. The federal Equal Access Act (1984) grants equal access to extracurricular clubs in all public high schools. In 2001, Arizona passed the CAP-supported Middle School Equal Access Act (ARS 15-720), which expanded equal access protections in Arizona to middle schools. Because of these laws, if a school allows any non-curriculum club to meet on campus, middle school and high school students have the right to hold religious club meetings as well. The club meetings must be voluntary, student-initiated, and student-led. The school, its agents, and employees may not sponsor, promote, lead, or participate in the meetings, although a school official may supervise in a non-participatory capacity.

Some of the protections we currently enjoy – Arizona’s Students’ Religious Liberties Act and Middle School Equal Access Act – exist because students did not stay silent but rather contacted CAP, and we were able to help. If you know a student encountering a problem exercising their religious beliefs at a public school, please call us or email legal@azpolicy.org.

Thanks to the U.S. Constitution and Arizona law, students in public schools do not have to leave their faith at home.

 

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Note: The Arizona Secretary of State’s office has indicated that the referendum on the expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) school choice program has enough signatures to be placed on the November 2018 ballot. However, this determination only is based on the required 5% sampling of petitions. The focus now moves to the state courts where school choice advocates hope to show that the laws were not strictly complied with and that there are not enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

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