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Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter

Dear Legal Mailbag:

I write to ask for your assistance in working out a problem between one of the teachers at my elementary school and a parent who is ready to sue us.

In the days before Thanksgiving, an experienced third-grade teacher went to her tried-and-true holiday activities list, and she had each of her students trace their hand on brown construction paper. The project then required students to color in the tracing as a turkey, with the outline of the thumb as the head, and the fingers serving as the feathers that students were to decorate. However, one of the students objected to the activity, claiming that his religion prohibits him from participating in holiday celebrations.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I wish that the teacher had simply acknowledged the student’s objection and given him an alternative activity. However, the teacher pushed back, telling the student that decorating construction paper turkeys has nothing to do with religion and that he should be a “more cooperative” student and get on with the project. To his credit, the student continued to refuse, and the teacher called his parents. That is when the real trouble started.

The parent explained that, in accordance with their religious faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses, their family does not participate in celebrations of holidays. The teacher, however, questioned how simply participating in this classroom activity would impair their free exercise of religion, which the family remains free to practice at home and at their “Kingdom Halls.” While the teacher ultimately relented and gave the young boy an alternative assignment unrelated to Thanksgiving, the parent is insisting that I reprimand the teacher for her insensitivity. Did the teacher do anything wrong here?

Thankful for Legal Mailbag

Dear Thankful:

In a word, yes. It should not be news to the teacher that school officials have a duty to make reasonable accommodations for the religious beliefs of students (and employees). Given that the free exercise of religion is a right guaranteed by the United States Constitution, government agencies, including local and regional boards of education, must assure that any direct interference with a student’s ability to practice his or her religion is justified by a compelling state interest and is only as intrusive as necessary to protect that interest. This obligation under the United States Constitution is codified under Connecticut law in the State Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-571b. 

Where students’ religious practices affect their lives at school, accommodations must be made whenever reasonable. For example, if a student must miss school because of religious obligations, accommodations must be made to (1) permit the absence, and (2) allow any work missed to be made up. Similarly, there was no compelling need for your teacher to require that students decorate construction paper turkeys in anticipation of Thanksgiving, and the teacher should have gracefully made the accommodation by providing an alternative assignment unrelated to holiday celebrations rather than arguing with the student and his parents. 

The scope of such required accommodation can, of course, be the subject of dispute and debate. The scope of the duty must be determined on a case-by-case basis, with consideration of the religious need and of the disruption, if any, of the educational process. For example, a Muslim student might ask for the opportunity to pray several times per day. Many years ago, in a case involving a Bible-study club, the Second Circuit provided some insight on accommodations in dicta (a comment that was not necessary to the court’s decision):

We do not have before us the case of a Moslem who must prostrate himself five times daily in the direction of Mecca, or children whose beliefs require prayer before lunch, sports or other school activities. If faced with these religious demands from students, a school board might have to make additional accommodations to permit the student to withdraw momentarily from the class.

Brandon v. Board of Education of Guilderland Central School District, 635 F.2d 971 (2d Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1123 (1981). 

A more recent example of accommodating student religious practices is the practice of some Sikh adherents of wearing a kirpan (an object that resembles a knife or sword) on their person as a matter of religious obligation. While such object would normally be prohibited in school as a “weapon,” making this accommodation while providing for student safety would be reasonable.  See “Legal Mailbag” (CAS Newsblast, October 27, 2022). The key in any such request for accommodation is good communication and appropriate balancing of the need for accommodation with school operational concerns. 

Another case of accommodation involved student dress. There, a student and her parents objected to her participating in physical education, claiming that the required uniform was immodest and against their religious beliefs. The court held that the student should be excused from wearing the uniform but nonetheless would be required to participate in the activity, despite her protestation that she did not want to see others so dressed.  Mitchell v. McCall, 143 So. 2d 629 (Ala. 1962). While the district was required to accommodate the personal beliefs of the student and her parents, it was not required to release her completely from this curriculum requirement.

Similarly, students in Texas successfully asserted the right under the Free Exercise Clause to wear rosaries and other religious symbols notwithstanding a prohibition against wearing such objects because they could be gang symbols.  Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School District, 976 F. Supp. 659 (S.D. Tex. 1997). The court ruled that the students’ interest in wearing the rosaries outweighed any legitimate school concern that rosaries (in other situations) were gang-related symbols.

These cases require a balance between the rights of parents and children to practice their religion and the obligation of parents and the state to assure that children receive an education. When a direct conflict between curriculum requirements and religious obligations can be shown, some accommodation is generally required. If that accommodation makes it impossible for the school district to provide an appropriate education to the children in question, or if the accommodation interferes with the education of other children, however, the free exercise rights of the parents and children must yield.

Legal Mailbag leaves to you whether and how to document your directive to the teacher to be more sensitive to the need to accommodate religious beliefs. However, as you do so, you should remember that whatever you write to the teacher about this situation will be a public record subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

Finally, Legal Mailbag gives thanks to you loyal readers and the good questions you present. Keep those questions coming, and best wishes to all for a restful Thanksgiving holiday.