Public primary and secondary schools, as well as public colleges and universities, should be open to all members of the public, regardless of their faith. Students should not face discrimination or harassment because of their faith background, their beliefs, their distinctive religious dress, or their religious expression.
The Civil Rights Division’s Educational Opportunities Section enforces Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion in public primary and secondary schools, as well as public colleges and universities. Subsection (a)(1) authorizes the Attorney General to bring suit in response to a written complaint by a parent that a child is being “deprived by a school board of the equal protection of the laws.” Subsection (a)(2) permits the Attorney General to bring suit upon receiving a written complaint that a student has been “denied admission to or not permitted to continue in attendance at a public college by reason of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” The Attorney General has delegated this authority to the Civil Rights Division.
Additionally, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits the Attorney General to intervene in any action in federal court, involving any subject matter, “seeking relief from the denial of equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution on account of race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” if such intervention is timely made and the Attorney General certifies that the case is of “general public importance.” Enforcement of this provision also has been delegated to the Civil Rights Division, and the Division has participated in a number of education-related religious discrimination cases under Title IX. Some of the types of cases handled by the Civil Rights Division:
- Harassment: Title IV may be violated when teachers harass students because of their faith, or, in some cases, when schools are deliberately indifferent to pervasive student-on-student-harassment. For example, the Civil Rights Division reached a settlement in March 2005 with the Cape Henlopen, Delaware School District in a harassment case involving a fourth-grade Muslim student. The student filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Division that she had been harassed by her teacher about her faith in front of her class, including being ridiculed because her mother wore a headscarf. As a result, the student was repeatedly harassed by other students and missed several weeks of school due to emotional distress. The student alleged that the school failed to take adequate remedial action. The settlement required programs for teaching religious tolerance for both teachers and students, and special training and monitoring for the teacher at issue.
- Student Religious Expression: Individual student expression may not be suppressed simply because it is religious. For example, the Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of a group of Massachusetts high school students who were suspended for handing out candy canes to other students with religious messages attached. The court agreed that the students’ First Amendment rights had been violated.
In another case, a group of Muslim high school students in Texas alleged that while other student groups had been allowed to meet during lunch periods, their request for space to kneel and say midday prayers during lunch period was denied. The Division reached a settlement agreement with the school in May 2007 allowing students to meet in a designated space in a common area outside of the cafeteria.
- Religious Dress: Schools may not discriminate against students who wear religious clothes or headcoverings. In Hearn and United States v. Muskogee Public School District, the Civil Rights Division intervened in the case of a Muslim girl who was told that she could not wear a headscarf required by her faith to school. The Civil Rights Division’s suit was based on the fact that the school was enforcing its uniform policy in an inconsistent manner. The case was settled by consent decree in May 2004.
- Equal Access: Schools must permit religious groups access to school facilities after-hours on an equal basis with other groups. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Schl. that a school opening school facilities after-hours to a wide range of community organizations offering “social, civic and recreational meetings and entertainment events, and other uses pertaining to the welfare of the community” could not bar the Good News Club, a Christian organization holding weekly activities for children involving Bible stories, religious lessons, and songs, from using the facilities on an equal basis with other groups.
Despite the Good News Club decision, there has been continued resistance by school boards to its requirement of equal access. For example, the Civil Rights Division filed friend-of-the-court briefs in a case in New Jersey and a case in Maryland arguing that Good News Club requires equal access to communications media such as bulletin boards, tables at back-to-school night, and “backpack mail.” Courts of appeals agreed with the Civil Rights Division in both cases.
- Religious Holidays: The Civil Rights Division filed a brief in the case of a boy in Indiana who was threatened with suspension, and his mother threatened with child neglect, when he missed several days of school for religious holidays. The school permitted only one excused absence per year for religious holidays, even though more days were permitted for secular reasons including attending the state fair and serving as a page in the state legislature. The case was settled.