Freedom Of Religion In Public Schools Essays

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Religion in Public Schools

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof......Ó according to the First Amendment of
the Constitution. This idea of freedom of religion has been stated very
clearly, but it also raises questions about the meaning of religious freedom .
Should religious expression be excluded from all government activities? Has
separation of church and state been violated by the U.S. Treasury? For example,
on the back of every U.S. coin are the words, ÒIn God We TrustÓ. And what
about when they swear-in government offficials with a Bible? Why not use the
Torah or the Koran?

Is it separation of church and state when Congress opens each session
with a Christian prayer? The following prayer was recited at the start of the
November 30, 1994 session:

We pray, O God, for the bread for the sustenance of
our bodies and spiritual food for the nourishment of
our souls. In a world where much seems to be
discouraging and where problems appear at every corner,
we pray that the human spirit will not be taught
by cynicism or despair, but rejoice in the
possibilities of every new day and accept all
Your blessings with thanksgiving. Amen.

For some people in the Congress this raises serious questions about when
prayer is or is not appropriate. One of the Representatives from Oklahoma made
this comment in the Congressional Digest on November 30, 1994: Ã’ It was fine
for Rev. James David Ford to offer this prayer, yet it is a prayer our children
our not allowed to say in schoolÓ.
Since no amendment has been made allowing or prohibiting prayer, many
schools have gone ahead and recited verses from the bible and allowed prayer in
class. Another area of controversy has been the presence of religious symbols
on the school grounds. Schools such as the one in Livingston have gone to
court over the wearing or carrying of objects such as the SikhÕs kirpans. All
these examples point to the fact that there are severe disagreements on the
subject of religion in the schools.

Religion in public schools has been around many years. In fact,
it started in the colonial period of United States history when the schools were
thought to be an arm of the church; therefore, their curriculum contained
religion. Of course, their schools didnÕt have many or probably any Muslims or
Jews, but how does that differ from a small country town in Oklahoma where the
population is completely of the Christian faith? Does this mean that the
school cannot practice the religion in which the complete population is
Christian? ArenÕt these students being denied their religious rights? These
questions may be asked by many.

Government has a lot to do with the debate. Many Supreme Court rulings
have made laws allowing or prohibiting the act of praying in schools in the
past eighty years. The first one was in 1914 when the ÒGary PlanÓ was
inaugurated in Gary,Indiana.The document stated that with the consent of parents,
students would be released from school to attend places to worship. That was
followed in 1940 when the Gary Plan was extended to Champaign, Illinois. It was
struck down by the Court in "McCollum v. Board of Education" in 1948. Another
important decision was the Engel v. Vitale case in 1962 which said that it was
unconsitutional for there to be recitation in public schools even though it was
non-denominational. The Supreme Court has also ruled against posting the Ten
Commandments in public school classroomsin 1978. Since the l980Õs the Supreme
Court has allowed religious groups to use university facilities for
extracurricular meetings (1981) and in 1984 Congress enacted the Equal Access
Act which means that religious groups as well as non-religious groups can have
access to school premises during noninstructional time.

The idea to add an amendment to the Constitution has brought a lot of
attention to the issue of religion in school. The people in favor of the
amendment probably don't like the way the Supreme Court ruled when it said in
"Wallace v. Jaffree" that it was unconstitutional to provide for a minute of
silence because it endorsed State prayer activities.

There are two views about this controversy. Those who are for an
amendment in the Constitution to allow prayer in schools believe that the
majority of Americans want prayers in school. A Readers Digest from 1993
showed that in a poll, 75% of the United States strongly favored prayer in the
public schools and wished to restore it. Meet the people I call the "Pro's".
"Pros" feel that prayer in public schools will restore positive values in kids.
In a world where Senator Jesse Helms states Ã’You can almost stand on the Capitol
steps and throw a throw a rock into a neighborhood where you cannot walk at
night,Ó there is the need to improve the nationÕs values. These Pros feel that
reciting prayers will help to restore respect for themselves and others. The
Pros hope it will reduce the crime and instill morals that will improve their

The other reason why the majority of the United States wants to regain
the right to pray in schools because they feel that our founding fathers didnÕt
mean for such a strict separation of church and state. This meaning that they
donÕt think the writers of the Constitution intended for there to be a law
against praying in public schools. All they were trying to do was keep all
religions equal in the eyes of the government. The "Pros" would say that it is
the governmentÕs job to stay out of this area altogether and let the people
decide what they want to do.

There are many reasons why there should not be prayer in
schools. The people that feel prayer is not necessary in schools are called Ã’
ConsÓ. They feel that prayer shouldnÕt be allowed in schools because religion
doesnÕt have a place in school. Freedom of religion covers the right to worship
or not worship but it does not belong in schoool. It is not in the curriculum;
therefore not required. Another objection to prayer in school is that there
would be too many faiths to deal with and the generic or a universal 7
prayer might be meaningless. They also fear that a universal prayer would
offend some people.

On the other hand if the schools let the students meditate or pray it
might lead to friction between students who want to pray and those who think it
is a waste of time. Some parents fear that their child might get picked on for
the way they worship or how they dress. The expression of religion might lead
to more intolerance. These people agree religion in schools might lead to
segregation and separation in schools.

At one point before I researched this subject I believed that
religion should be allowed in public school. But now I feel that it is not
necessary and probably would be better off without it. The schools have enough
problems to deal with. Besides, school isnÕt a place of worship. It is a place
of learning and I feel it should stay that way. I do feel that occasionally you
should think of (in my case) God or who ever else you worship, but I don't think
people need to go overboard and recite prayers as a class.

Every Sunday I go to church for one hour. That amount of time and a
prayer before dinner is enough to let my God know I love him. Maybe in different
religions they feel differently, but whatever people think I agree that worship
time is worship time, and school time is school time. You can bet that religion
is going to open up a whole new can of problems,so letÕs work with the cards we
have now, before we deal some more.

As we pass through the 104th Congress, House Speaker Newt
Gengrich has set a goal of passing a constitutional amendment by the 4th of July
that promises that children in our public schools will have a right to voluntary
prayer. Let'Õs see if he succeeds.

David R. Glasgow Core 7-2 Mrs. Roland May 2, 1994


Armstrong, James . "Freedom of Religion." World Book
Encyclopedia,1991, Volume 4, p. 505.

Ferguson, M.L. The American Principle of the Separation of
Church and State. Waco,Texas, Baylor University Press, p.45.

"Prayer In School-Still A Troubling Problem". U.S. News &
World Report, Feb. 8 1975, p.101.

Roth, Cecil. "Religion in Public Schools". Merit Student
Encyclopedia, 1967, Volume15, p.146.

"Should a School Prayer Constitutional Amendment be
Approved by Congress?", Congressional Digest, January
1995, p. 18-20.


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Public schools may not teach religion, although teaching about religion in a secular context is permitted.1 The Bible may be taught in a school, but only for its historical, cultural or literary value and never in a devotional, celebratory or doctrinal manner, or in such a way that encourages acceptance of the Bible as a religious document.2


What distinguishes "teaching religion" from "teaching about religion"?

Religion may be presented as part of a secular educational program. Programs that "teach about religion" are geared toward teaching students about the role of religion in the historical, cultural, literary and social development of the United States and other nations. These programs should instill understanding, tolerance and respect for a pluralistic society. When discussing religion in this context, religion must be discussed in a neutral, objective, balanced and factual manner. Such programs should educate students about the principle of religious liberty as one of the fundamental elements of freedom and democracy in the United States.

"Teaching religion" amounts to religious indoctrination or practice and is clearly prohibited in public schools. A public school curriculum may not be devotional or doctrinal.3 Nor may it have the effect of promoting or inhibiting religion. A teacher must not promote or denigrate any particular religion, religion in general, or lack of religious belief.4 A teacher must not interject personal views or advocate those of certain students. Teachers must be extremely sensitive to respect, and not interfere with, a student's religious beliefs and practices. Students must not be encouraged to accept or conform to specific religious beliefs or practices. A program intended to teach religion, disguised as teaching about religion, will be found unconstitutional.5

In sum, there is a critical difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion. While it is constitutionally permissible for public schools to teach about religion, it is unconstitutional for public schools and their employees to observe religious holidays, promote religious belief, or practice religion. School officials and parents must be extremely careful not to cross the line between "the laudable educational goal of promoting a student's knowledge of and appreciation for this nation's cultural and religious diversity, and the impermissible endorsement of religion forbidden by the Establishment Clause."6

May schools teach the Bible as literature?

The Bible may be studied as literature, but not as religious doctrine. The lesson must be secular, religiously neutral and objective.7 Classes on the Bible as literature should be optional.8 The Anti-Defamation League strongly suggests that such classes be taught by school personnel who have some training in Establishment Clause issues.

May schools teach secular values which coincide with religious values?

Schools may indeed and should teach secular values such as honesty, respect for others, courage, kindness and good citizenship. These values, however, must not be taught as religious tenets. The fact that most religions also teach these values does not change the lawfulness and desirability of teaching them. It is also appropriate for school officials to instill in students such values as "independent thought, tolerance of diverse views, self-respect, maturity, self-reliance and logical decision-making."9

What are some concerns that arise regarding "teaching about religion" in public schools?

Although it is legal to teach about religion in public schools in a neutral and secular manner, school administrators, teachers and parents should be cognizant of the inherent dangers of bringing religion into the classroom.10 Public school teachers should carefully consider the following factors:

  • Students are extremely susceptible to peer and public pressure and coercion. This concern is heightened, of course, at the elementary school level. Any discussion of religion in the classroom should be sensitive to the beliefs of the different students in the class. No student should be made to feel that his or her personal beliefs or practices are being questioned, infringed upon or compromised. A student should never feel ostracized on the basis of his or her religious beliefs.
  • If religion is discussed, great care must be taken to discuss minority as well as majority religions. The inclusion of only the major religions in a classroom discussion does not reflect the actual religious diversity within our society and the world. Cursory discussions will subtly denigrate the validity of minority religious beliefs held by some individuals, regardless of whether adherents to minority beliefs are represented in the class. If they are present, these students may feel excluded or coerced.
  • Students should not be put on the spot to explain their religious (or cultural) traditions. The student may feel uncomfortable and may not have enough information to be accurate. Moreover, by asking a student to be spokesperson for his or her religion, the teacher is sending a signal that the religion is too "exotic" for the teacher to understand. Finally, in certain cases, the teacher may be opening the door for proselytizing activity by the student, which must be avoided.
  • Every effort should be made to obtain accurate information about different religions. Special training may be required to prepare teachers to discuss religion in an appropriate manner.
  • Discussion of religion in the classroom may alienate those students who are being raised with no religious faith. While there is an obligation for even these students to learn what is being taught as part of a secular educational program, it is very important that teachers avoid discussions that seem to endorse religious belief over non-religious belief. Otherwise, such students may feel pressure to conform to the majority, or be made to feel inferior about their own upbringing.
  • Discussion of religion in the classroom may alienate those who are being raised with orthodox religious faiths. It is equally important that teachers not appear to disapprove of faith, thereby alienating those who are raised with faith.

If students object on religious grounds to portions of a textbook, may they be excused from studying the material?

No. Public schools can require that all students use a prescribed set of textbooks if the books neither promote nor oppose any religious practice. The students must only be required to read and discuss the material and may not be required to perform or refrain from performing any act forbidden or mandated by their religion. Mere exposure to ideas that one finds objectionable on religious grounds does not rise to the level of a free exercise claim that compelled activity would.11

Aren't these rules just promoting a "secular religion"?

The state may not establish a "religion of secularism" in the sense that the state may not affirmatively oppose or show hostility to religion, thereby preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.12 That being said, the prohibition on teaching religion and religious activity ensures that the government does not advance or promote religious belief over non-religious belief or a particular religious belief over other religious beliefs.13 Simply, the public schools should work to ensure that they do not endorse or disapprove religion, neither promoting nor denigrating it.

What happens when a student responds to a secular assignment with religious expression?

This is as much a free speech issue as it is a religious liberty issue. Where a student responds to an assignment (for example, a book report) with a religiously-themed project (for example, reporting on a religious tract), a school may not refuse to accept the assignment solely because it has a religious basis (students have a right to free expression).14 However, if in observing the presentation of the assignment -- especially expressive assignments like artwork, plays and reports that are presented publicly -- an observer might think that the project is endorsed by the school, it is a problem.15 Thus, a book report delivered to a teacher may not be rejected merely because it is religious, whereas a work of art that will be hung up or displayed by the school or a play intended for public performance is unacceptable. Indeed, educators are able to exercise considerable control over "student expression to assure that participants learn whatever lessons the activity is designed to teach, that readers or listeners are not exposed to material that may be inappropriate for their level of maturity, and that the views of the individual speaker are not erroneously attributed to the school."16


Sixth-grader Asks Teacher about Religious Beliefs of Historical Groups

Mr. Clark's sixth grade class used a standard reader which had stories on a wide variety of topics. One passage in the reader involved the first settlers in the "new world," and another described Leonardo da Vinci as the human with a creative mind that "came closest to the divine touch." Talia Berk, a student in Mr. Clark's class, was interested in the passage about the first settlers and asked how the religious beliefs and practices of these settlers compared with those of the Native American Indians.

How should Mr. Clark answer Talia's question on the settlers?

After researching the question, the teacher may explain the answer to Talia in a secular, objective and nondoctrinal manner, or recommend a book on the subject which is secular, unbiased and nondoctrinal.

Parent of Sixth-grader Objects to Reading Assignment on Religious Grounds

Joe Smith, also a student in Mr. Clark's class, showed the reader referenced in the prior scenario to his mother, who became very upset with the passage on Leonardo da Vinci, since she viewed it as contrary to her religious beliefs. Joe's mother asked Mr. Clark to excuse Joe from using the reader. Mr. Clark, unsure of how to respond to Mrs. Smith's request, went to the principal to seek guidance.

Should Joe be exempted from using the standard reader?

The school should not excuse Joe from using the standard reader. However, the school must ensure that the standard reader neither promotes nor opposes religion, and that Joe is merely required to read and discuss the material and is not required to perform or refrain from performing any act forbidden or mandated by his religion.

Jewish Student Asked to Explain Hanukkah to Class

Mr. Parker, who is not Jewish, is afraid that he will mischaracterize Hanukkah when he is explaining about holidays. In class, he calls on a Jewish student to see if she would be willing to explain to the class the meaning of Hanukkah. She tries to do so. Later that day, the student tells her mother about the incident, who objects to Mr. Parker. Mr. Parker proposes that the mother come to class and explain Hanukkah. She agrees and comes to school and performs a holiday-foods cooking demonstration.

Should Mr. Parker have asked the student to explain Hanukkah? Should he have asked her mother?

By asking the student, Mr. Parker singled her out from her peers and made Hanukkah seem too exotic for him to explain. It is also unlikely that many students would have the requisite knowledge to give an accurate answer. By asking the mother, Mr. Parker rightly shifted the burden off of the student to an adult. However, he must make sure that the presentation given by the mother is neutral, objective and fits in with a broader lesson plan concerning the holidays. Better still, Mr. Parker could avail himself of one of the many books about Hanukkah and prepare himself to teach the lesson.


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