What Does the First Amendment Say About Displaying Religious Symbols?

Authored by Teaching Tolerance

Sara Wicht— June 2, 2014

Educators can’t display religious symbols in public schools, but that does not mean religious symbols can never appear in the classroom. So when is it OK?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

—First Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Is bringing religious symbols into public school classrooms ever OK? Many educators struggle with this question, afraid of tripping over the lines that protect our freedom of religion and separate church and state. We know the courts have interpreted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to mean that public schools cannot promote religious or antireligious beliefs, yet we know that teachers can teach about religion as long as (a) the content is tied to academic objectives and (b) teachers do not attempt to indoctrinate students to a certain religious belief or nonbelief. But does that answer the question about religious symbols?

Use symbols as instructional aids, not as permanent display or decoration.

While still contested in some areas, permanent displays of religious symbols on public school property violate current interpretations of the Establishment Clause. The Ten Commandments, for example, are unarguably religious in nature. Their permanent display in public schools communicates an endorsement for Christianity—just as hanging a Star of David in a classroom could make it appear that the school favors Judaism.

The Ten Commandments could, however, be temporarily displayed in a comparative literature classroom as an instructional aid in a lesson on the Bible as a literary source for other works.  Instructional aids, in this context, are objects referenced during instruction to help students understand a particular religious heritage. Another example might be a Muslim prayer rug to illustrate the Islamic practice of Salah, or a poster about the Crusades in a history classroom depicting people holding crosses.

The question of “display” versus instructional use can be especially complex in art and music classes. Religious music and art can be included as part of classroom instruction, but it is the teacher’s responsibility to make the connection to academic content clear, to refrain from and confront any form of proselyting or denigration of the religion or the adherents of that religion, and to include art representing multiple religious and secular worldviews.

Think carefully when decorating for winter holidays.

Consider the Christmas tree. The Supreme Court has held that the Christmas tree is a secular symbol of the holiday season; therefore, the display of a Christmas tree in the school lobby, temporarily, does not violate the Establishment Clause. A Hanukkah menorah has also been determined to be a secular symbol and does not violate the Establishment Clause when displayed temporarily.

Even so, public schools should exercise caution in choosing to put out these symbols. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, many students and families associate them with religions and religious holidays that not all members of the school community observe or celebrate. Their display could marginalize non-Christian and non-Jewish students and be counter-productive to the positive school climate we work to establish.

Make sure your teaching reflects your classroom diversity.

Students may still feel left out, even if you teach about religion within legal parameters and use religious symbols appropriately. When learning about comparative religions, does your Buddhist student see herself in the instruction and class objectives as clearly as her Pentecostal classmate does? (Practices outlined in Teaching Tolerance’s Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education can help teachers create classroom environments that reflect diversity and support students’ religious identities.)

The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment are often referred to as the Constitution’s “religion clauses” and—in certain scenarios—may seem to contradict each other. For example, does displaying student artwork that includes a religious symbol in a common area of the school violate the Establishment Clause? If the teacher covers over the religious symbol on the student’s work, is the student being denied his right to free exercise?

Educators have the responsibility to strike a balance between the two clauses, remaining within the legal parameters for honoring students’ right to free expression while avoiding messages or displays that favor one religion over another or that favor religion over non-religion. In this case, that balance could be achieved by clearly labeling the work as student art, communicating that the contents of the display are not the views of the school while honoring the religious identity of the student.

Teaching about religion and referencing religion when teaching other academic subjects presents many fine lines educators must maneuver—but they’re important and necessary lines to navigate. Teaching Tolerance and the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding can help. We’ve teamed up to bring educators a series of five webinars about religious diversity in the classroom. The first webinar in the series, What’s law got to do with it? (and the accompanying after-session pack), provided instructional tools and strategies to ensure teaching about religion is constitutionally sound and academically responsible. Visit the links below to see blogs on the other commonly asked questions about religion and public schools.

Wicht is the senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.