Public schools now risk losing federal money if they violate the religious freedom of students and teachers, according to Department of Education guidelines released this month.
"Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families," Education Secretary Rod Paige said. But he also reminded that school officials may not compel students to participate in prayer and other religious activities.
The guidelines include specific examples. Teachers are permitted to meet with each other for prayer or Bible study before school or after lunch, provided they make clear they are not acting in their "official capacities." School officials cannot bar students who speak at assemblies and graduation exercises from making religious references as long as the students are chosen as speakers through "neutral, evenhanded criteria." However, schools may issue disclaimers clarifying that such speech doesn't represent the school.