WASHINGTON (AP) - Schools that don't allow students to pray outside the classroom or teachers to hold religious meetings among themselves could face the loss of federal money, the Education Department said Friday.
The guidelines reflect the Bush administration's push to ensure that schools give teachers and students as much freedom to pray as court rulings have allowed.
The department makes clear that teachers cannot pray with students or attempt to shape their religious views.
``Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families,'' Education Secretary Rod Paige said. ``At the same time, school officials may not compel students to participate in prayer or other activities.''
The guidance, released by the department late Friday, broadly follows the same direction provided by the Clinton administration and the courts. Prayer is generally allowed provided it happens outside the class and is initiated by students, not by school officials.
For the first time, however, schools risk losing federal money if they don't prove compliance.
But the department also offers more details on such long contentious matters as moments of silence and prayer in student assemblies.
In one significant example, 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.''
Also, students taking part in assemblies and graduation may not be restricted in expressing religion as long as they were chosen as speakers through ``neutral, evenhanded criteria.
'' To avoid controversy, schools may issue disclaimers clarifying that such speech does not represent the school.
``I'm very excited about the clarity, and very optimistic that these guidelines will go a long way in solving issues related to students' religious speech,'' said Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, which promotes religious expression. ``We will use these actively in dealing with schools, and we'll use them in cases we're litigating as well.''
The guidelines do a better job of spelling out what's allowed in many cases, but in others, they may just cause more confusion, said Reggie Felton, lobbyist for the National School Boards Association. Giving teachers discretion to openly pray during breaks may cause problems, especially if it is not clear they are doing it outside their official roles, he said.