Because the U.S. Constitution clearly prohibits the promotion of religion in public schools, the courts have rigorously enforced rules against such activities as morning prayer and Bible reading. The teaching of religion as an academic subject, however, may be permissible, and indeed, some research suggests that it may produce desirable results. The latter practice is the subject of this entry.
What Is Legal
At issue in the case Abington Township v. Schempp (1963) was a policy of the state of Pennsylvania requiring students who attended public school to read at least 10 verses from the Bible everyday. In addition, Abington Township required the students in its district to recite the Lord’s Prayer after completing these readings. Students could be exempted if their parents wrote a note requesting that their children be excluded from these exercises.
The U.S. Supreme Court found that the required activities encroached on both the free exercise clause and the establishment clause of the First Amendment, because the readings and recitations were essentially religious ceremonies and were “intended by the State to be so.” Moreover, Justice Clark argued in the main opinion that the ability of a parent to excuse a child from these ceremonies by a written note was irrelevant because it did not prevent the school’s actions from violating the establishment clause. The Court’s decision and a series of others made it clear that public schools could not engage in devotional teaching of religion. At the same time, the Court in Abington also noted that academic teaching about religion was constitutional.
Some researchers believe that state-supported institutions have excluded religion and religious ways of thinking through a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the First Amendment. Although the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Education forbid public school teachers from engaging in religious activities in the classroom, they affirm that the establishment clause does not mean that religion is strictly forbidden from public school in all aspects. The Bible, the Koran, and other religious texts may be studied or otherwise used in public schools for their literary, poetic, or historical aspects, but public schools cannot teach that the religious tenets of these texts are true or false.
Furthermore, a student’s freedom of speech includes the right to discuss religious issues with classmates and to distribute literature, both religious and nonreligious, on campus. In fact, censorship of this nature would itself violate the free speech and establishment clauses.
U.S. schools admit students of various religious orientations and those with no religious affiliation. Statistics indicate that nine out of ten Americans believe in the existence of God and that among developed nations, the United States is the most religiously diverse society and the most religious. Projections by religious sociologists and urban planners suggest that what has been a White Protestant majority among members of religious groups in the United States will change with the growing number of Latino Catholics and evangelicals, with increases in the number of Latter-Day Saints, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, and with the emergence of more nonreligious people in the population. It is projected that by 2040, minorities will represent more than half of the K–12 student population in the United States.
In 2003, the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life advised that the United States is currently confronting expanding religious diversity. Consequently, some believe that there is a need for understanding religious differences and learning about the religious traditions of others in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Some argue that studying religion would provide knowledge and information that exists nowhere else in the curriculum, and they also emphasize that including religion in the curriculum shows respect. Subsequently, some have called for greater incorporation of religion or spiritual guidance in public schools, particularly in the wake of such high school tragedies as those at Columbine and Jonesboro.
Examples Of State Involvement
Charles Haynes, a religion scholar, notes that a new consensus on the importance of teaching about religion has begun to influence state frameworks and standards for social studies as well as the treatment of religion in textbooks widely used in public schools. North Carolina and Utah teach about religion in social studies classes, and in California, the history-social science framework and the new history-social science content standards require considerable study of religion. California’s students are expected to learn the religious dimensions of the American story, from the influence of religious groups on social reform movements to the religious revivals from Christian fundamentalism to the expanding religious pluralism of the twentieth century.
Begun by a retired Utah middle-grade teacher, Martha Ball, there are a number of what are referred to as 3Rs projects across the nation. 3Rs stands for Rights, Responsibilities, and Respect for Religious Liberty. States that have established 3Rs projects include California, Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, and Utah. Bell continues to work to change attitudes about everyone’s rights and responsibilities with reference to conflicts and debates revolving around our differences.
The 3Rs projects help school districts implement policies that protect the religious liberty rights of students by using First Amendment principles. These policies protect students of all faiths and no faith. Moreover, the projects prepare teachers to teach about religion in history in ways that are both constitutional and educational.
The movement to put religion as a subject, but not a devotional topic, in American classrooms is national in scope. The National Center for History in Schools (NCHS) guides many school districts in developing a curriculum. In that capacity, NCHS has listed religion as a critical element of history. In world history, the NCHS recommended the study of Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism. For U.S. history, NCHS recommended that students study religions that are representative of the modern population in order to understand “religious diversity and its impact on American institutions and values.”
In 1998, Haynes advised that failure to provide the facts about religion can lead students to have the false impression that the religious experience of humanity is insignificant or unimportant. Moreover, the failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices, and concepts of the various religions makes much of history, literature, art, and contemporary life unintelligible. In this context, the study of religion is clearly an important subject for the curriculum of the schools.
- Haynes, C. C. (1998). What is at stake? In C. C. Haynes & O. Thomas (Eds.), Finding common ground: A First Amendment guide to religion and public education (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: First Amendment Center.
- Kaiser, E. D. (2003). Jesus heard the word of God, but Mohammed had convulsions: How religion clause principles should be applied to religion in the public school social studies curriculum. Journal of Law and Education, 34(4), 321–356.
- Lugg, C. (2004). One nation under God? Religion and the politics of education in a post 9/11 America. Educational Policy, 18(1), 169–187.
- Marshall, J. M. (2007). Nothing new under the sun: A historical overview of religion in U.S. public schools. Equity and Excellence in Education, 39(3), 181–194.
- Paige, R. (2003). Guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
- Rosenblith, S., & Priestman, S. (2004). Problematizing religious truth: Implications for public education. Educational Theory, 54(4), 365–380.
- Subedi, B. (2007). Preservice teachers’ beliefs and practices: Religion and religious diversity. Equity and Excellence in Education, 39(3), 227–238.
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