Religious Freedom Annual Review 2016 Friday Afternoon Workshops: Religion in Public Schools: What Rights do Parents and Students Have?

by Brittani Nelson

The workshop session entitled “Religion in Public Schools: What Rights Do Parents and Students Have?” took place on Friday afternoon, 8 July 2016, and was presented by Scott Ferrin. Professor Ferrin teaches at the David O. McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Law at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University. 

Professor Ferrin’s presentation focused on the state of religious freedom in public schools. He briefly described how the public education system in Utah is designed. He emphasized that the curriculum is set by the State Legislature and that parents hoping to make changes to their student’s curriculum should focus their efforts on a legislative level. 

He then discussed a few important cases and laws regarding religion in public schools. His main emphasis was on the Equal Access Act, which essentially states that if any non-curriculum clubs are allowed at a public school, then all non-curriculum clubs must be allowed (with the exception of discriminatory clubs or those that pose a health or safety threat). He also emphasized that although the school itself may not establish religious behaviors or persuade students to participate in such activities, the students themselves have a First Amendment right to express their religious beliefs. 

Professor Ferrin’s friendly and entertaining presentation style facilitated quite a bit of audience participation, including questions about charter schools and requests for clarification regarding individual student rights. Professor Ferrin’s concluding piece of advice was to find and celebrate good research. He pointed out that the research regarding religion in schools is often flawed and misinterpreted. He encouraged participants to be a reasonable voice and a good example of religious believers in the educational setting. The answer, he said, was knowledge and love.