Prayer in School: Can a student write a term paper about prayer?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Prayer in School
College classroom photo by Elly Koepf for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

College classroom photo by Elly Koepf for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Officially sanctioned prayers are banned in public schools, including any religious expression in classrooms or graduation ceremonies led by school employees.

But what if a student wants to write about prayer or God in a class assignment? Is this allowable?

I once faced this situation. I teach in a public institution of higher education and so the ban on officially sanctioned religious expression obviously applies. But I had a business-school student ask me if it was okay to write about “God as a business partner” to fulfill a class assignment for a term paper. For example, in some banks, loan officers routinely pray with their clients for good terms on pending mortgage applications. Some companies incorporate religious principles into their business models. Chick-fil-A restaurants, for example, are closed on Sundays.

The student’s proposal might seem like a gray area, but the Department of Education is clear about the answer. Suppose, for example, that an English teacher gives an assignment to write a poem and a student writes a sonnet about prayer. This poem “should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.”

Students are free to “express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.” The instructor should judge the product solely on “the basis of academic standards.” It cannot be “penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious content.”

I confess that I didn’t then know all the details of the DOE guidelines, but it was apparent to me at the time that it would be fine for the student to write a term paper about God as a business partner.

Have you faced a similar situation?

Do you agree with DOE’s policy on the expression of religious beliefs in class assignments?

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