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Can Coaches and Teachers Live Out Their Faith on Campus?

October 17, 2017

By: Katie Heller

Teachers and coaches at public schools, colleges, or universities don’t give up their right to live out their faith when they sign on the dotted line of their contract. Below we’ve answered five of the most common questions about the rights of schools, coaches, and faculty members when it comes to incorporating faith and work. Keep this handy, and if you believe your right to live out your faith on campus is violated, contact us to see how we can help.

1.  May coaches lead prayer at practices and games?
  • Courts have ruled that since coaches are employees of the school, they may not lead prayer at either practices or games. The courts have expressed concern that an appearance of school endorsement may be present with coaches as well as teachers, because coaches are also employees of the school and represent the school to the athletes during these times. In addition, courts have also remarked on the possibility of athletes feeling compelled to participate in the religious activity.

    Students may have their own times of prayer (as long as they initiate it and lead it) that take place immediately before or after practices and games, and the coach may be present at the place and time to maintain order and discipline.

2.  How much involvement can faculty sponsors have in religious club meetings?
  • Many schools require each recognized student club to have a faculty sponsor. It is fine for a teacher or coach to fulfill this role, but it must be done in a way that is “nonparticipatory,” according to the Equal Access Act. This means that all of the activities that students participate in as part of the meeting are led by students, and the teacher or coach is only there to supervise. The Act’s “nonparticipatory” requirement is premised on the notion that the teacher or coach, when serving as a faculty sponsor, is still acting in his or her official capacity as a school employee and therefore it could be problematic for them to participate in religious speech with students.
3.  Can schools and teachers provide instruction related to religion as part of the curriculum?
  • While a teacher may not use the classroom to indoctrinate students, a teacher may disseminate information in an objective manner so long as the information is reasonably related to the curriculum.

    The Supreme Court has recognized that the study of the Bible or religion when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education is consistent with the First Amendment. The Bible can therefore be taught in a school for its historical, cultural, or literary value but not in a devotional or doctrinal manner. For example, a teacher may objectively teach the Bible in a history of religions class, study the Bible as part of a literature course, and even discuss, perform, critique, and overview religious music, composition, and history.  

4.  May a faculty member talk about his or her beliefs in the classroom?
  • Professors may discuss issues germane to the subject matter of the course.  “It has long been recognized that the purpose of academic freedom is to preserve the ‘free marketplace of ideas’ and protect the individual professor’s classroom method from the arbitrary interference of university officials.” But this freedom is not unlimited. A good rule of thumb is that professors may share their thoughts on anything “germane” to the subject matter of the course. For example, a professor cannot teach material used in contravention of university policy, but a professor’s discussion of the social impact of words in a language course, even if those words may be offensive, is permitted. So long as a professor stays within the subject required by the curriculum, the First Amendment should protect his or her right to speak freely.

5.  May a faculty member express his beliefs outside of the classroom?
  • Yes. The First Amendment protects a public employee’s right, in certain circumstances, to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern. But the government may to some extent regulate the speech of its employees because of its interest in performing its functions efficiently and effectively. To receive First Amendment protection, a public university professor must show (1) he or she was speaking as a citizen; (2) “on a matter of public concern;” and (3) when balancing the university’s interest in efficiency and effectiveness against his or her speech, his or her right to speak wins out.

Meet Three Professors Who Stood for Freedom and Won

Alliance Defending Freedom has had the honor of representing numerous students and professors over the years in a battle to freely live out their faith at school. Learn more about how three professors took a stand for their right to free speech and won.  For more information on student rights on campus, download the Student Rights Handbook.

Dr. Kenneth Howell                     Dr. Mike Adams                     June Sheldon

Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

Non-profit organization

Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith