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Rights of Students in Private Schools

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Rights of Students in Private Schools

Do private school students have the same religious rights as public school students?

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A frequent topic that comes up on this website is that of religious expression in schools. Who can speak about religion? What are the boundaries? Is it okay for teachers to be involved? Can school districts prevent students from wearing shirts or jewelry with religious themes? If you're a student at a public school, that information is standard across the board, thanks to federal guidelines on religious expression in public schools.

The reason the federal government can take a stance on this matter is because public schools are funded by public money - basically, tax dollars pay for students to attend public schools. (Please note that the information in this article applies only to students who live in the United States. Students in other countries will fall under a different set of guidelines, based upon the laws of their country.)

However, if you're a student at a private or parochial school, these guidelines may not apply to you.

In private schools, the situation is quite different. Because private schools are funded by parents and/or scholarship money, and they receive no federal or state dollars, they can typically establish whatever set of rules they want to. If you attend a Christian or Catholic high school, and they say, "No Wiccan jewelry," they are within their rights to do so.

The general rule is that no private school may discriminate against a student on the basis of race, but pretty much any other issue (such as religion, or sexual orientation, for example) is something that gets thorny. For instance, a Catholic school might choose not to admit a gay or lesbian student because it goes against the philosophy of their church. Likewise, a Christian school may say, "We only want Christian students here." As long as they are not receiving federal tax dollars, this has been allowed by the courts in the past.

So, if you're going to a private school that has a policy against your wearing Wiccan religious jewelry, you're pretty much out of luck. If you were a public school student, you might have a case on your hands.

Teaching About Religion: While public schools are not permitted to teach religious courses, they are allowed to teach about religion. This includes the use of works like the Bible and Koran as literature. If you attend a private school or one which is church-affiliated, you may be required to attend Bible classes, or daily mass. This is legal.

Student Clothing: When it comes to clothing, schools get a lot of leeway from the government as far as setting dress code. Ideally, no articles of student clothing should be disruptive. However, a private school may have a specific dress code that all students are expected to adhere to. You may be prohibited from wearing shirts or clothing that have a Pagan or Wiccan message on them.

Administrative Neutrality: Teachers and other school officials are considered representatives of the state, so the establishment clause prohibits them from being involved with student religious activity in a public school. They're not permitted to solicit, encourage, or participate in any sort of religious activity with the students. This does not apply to privately-funded schools. If you attend Our Holy Father of the Toaster Oven High School, and Sister Mary Margaret tells you it's time for prayer, she is within her legal rights to do so.

Be sure to read about the rights of Pagan students if you've got a child attending public school.

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