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Religion in Public Schools

Religion in Public Schools

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Published by Chad Whitehead
Article about religion and public school by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Article about religion and public school by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

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Categories:Types, Presentations
Published by: Chad Whitehead on May 26, 2014
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved


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MAY 2007
Nearly a half-century after 
the Supreme Court issued its land-mark ruling striking down school-sponsored prayer,Americans continue tofight over the place of religion in public schools.Indeed,the classroom hasbecome one of the most important battlegrounds in the broader conflict over religion’s role in public life.Some Americans are troubled by what they see as an effort on the part of fed-eral courts and civil liberties advocates to exclude God and religious sentimentfrom public schools.Such an effort,these Americans believe,infringes uponthe First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.Civil libertarians and others,meanwhile,voice concern that conservativeChristians are trying to impose their values on students of all religious stripes.Federal courts,the civil libertarians point out,have consistently interpreted theFirst Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion to forbid statesponsorship of prayer and most other religious activities in public schools.Despite that long series of court decisions,polls show that large numbers of Americans favorlooser,not tighter,limits on religion in public schools.According to an August 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center,more thantwo-thirds of Americans (69%) agree with the notion that “liberals have gonetoo far in trying to keep religion out of the schools and the government.Andaclear majority (58%) favor teaching biblical creationism along with evolutionin public schools.Conflicts over religion in school are hardly new.In the 19th century,Protestants and Catholics frequently fought over Bible reading and prayer inpublic schools.The disputes then were over
Bible and
prayerswereappropriate to use in the classroom.Some Catholics were troubled that theschools’reading materials included the King James version of the Bible,which
wasfavored by Protestants.In 1844,fighting brokeout between Protestants and Catholics inPhiladelphia;a number of people died in the vio-lence and several Catholic churches were burned.Similar conflicts erupted during the 1850s inBoston and other parts of New England.In theearly 20th century,liberal Protestants and their secular allies battled religious conservatives over whether students in biology classes should betaught Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.The Supreme Court stepped into those controver-sies when it determined,in
Cantwell v.Connecticut 
(1940) and
Everson v.Board of Education of Ewing Township
(1947),that the First Amendment’s FreeExercise Clause and Establishment Clause appliedto the states.The two clauses say,“Congress shallmake no law respecting an establishment of reli-gion,or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.Before those two court decisions,courts hadapplied the religion clauses only to actions of thefederal government.Soon after the
decision,the SupremeCourt began specifically applying the religionclauses to activities in public schools.In its firstsuch case,
McCollum v.Board of Education
(1948),the high court invalidated the practice of havingreligious instructors from different denominationsenter public schools to offer religious lessons dur-ing the school day to students whose parentsrequested them.A key factor in the court’s decisionwas that the lessons took place in the schools.Four  years later,in
Zorach v.Clauson
,the court upheldan arrangement bywhich public schools excusedstudents during the school day so they couldattend religious classes awayfrom school property.Beginning in the 1960s,the court handed religiousconservatives a series of major defeats.It beganwith the landmark 1962 ruling,in
Engel v.Vitale 
,that school-sponsored prayer,even if it were non-sectarian,violated the Establishment Clause.Sincethen,the Supreme Court has pushed forward,frombanning organized Bible reading for religious andmoral instruction in 1963 to prohibiting prayers athigh school football games in 2000.In these and other decisions,the court has repeat-edly stressed that the Constitution prohibits publicschools from indoctrinating children in religion.But it is not always easy to determine exactlywhat constitutes indoctrination or school sponsor-ship of religious activities.For example,can a classon the Bible as literature be taught without a biasfor or against the idea that the Bible is religioustruth? Can students be compelled to participate inaChristmas-themed music program? Sometimesstudents themselves,rather than teachers,adminis-
page 2
Religion in the Public Schools
Prayer and the Pledge
3School Prayer
3The Pledge of Allegiance
4School Officials and Student Speech
6Religion in the Curriculum
7Creationism and Evolution
7Study of the Bible
8Holiday Programs
9Rights in and out of the Classroom
9Rights of Students
10Rights of Parents
11Rights of Teachers and Administrators
13Religious Activities and the Principle of Equal Access
trators or coaches,bring their faith into schoolactivities.For instance,when a student invokesgratitude to God in a valedictory address,or ahigh school football player offers a prayer in ahuddle,is the school legally responsible for their religious expression?The issues are complicated by other constitutionalguarantees.For instance,the First Amendment alsoprotects freedom of speech and freedom of associ-ation.Religious groups have cited those guaran-tees in support of student religious speech and inefforts to obtain school sponsorship and resourcesfor student religious clubs.The right of a student or student club to engagein religious speech or activities on school propertymay,however,conflict with other protections,suchas the right of students to avoid harassment.Inone recent case,for example,a federal appealscourt approved a high school’s decision to prohibitastudent from wearing a T-shirtcontaining a bib-lical passage condemning homosexuality.Becausethe student had graduated by the time theSupreme Courtgranted his appeal,the SupremeCourtordered the lower court to vacate its rulingand dismiss the case.In another instance of conflicting rights,some stu-dent religious groups want the right to excludestudents who do not share the groups’beliefs,specifically on questions of sexuality.For example,the Christian Legal Society,which has chapters inmany law schools,is embroiled in litigation over its policy that only students who believe that sexoutside of heterosexual marriage is a sin can servein leadership positions.As these more recent conflicts show,public schoolsremain a battlefield where the religious interests of parents,students,administrators and teachers oftenclash.The conflicts affect classroom curricula,highschool football games,student clubs,graduationceremonies – and the lives of everyone with aninterest in public education.
Prayer and the Pledge
School Prayer 
The most enduring and controversial issue relatedto school-sponsored religious activities is class-room prayer.In
Engel v.Vitale 
(1962),the SupremeCourt held that the Establishment Clause prohib-ited the recitation of a school-sponsored prayer inpublic schools.
involved a simple and seem-ingly nonsectarian prayer composed especially for use in New York’s public schools.In banning theprayer exercise entirely,the court did not rest itsopinion on the grounds that unwilling studentswere coerced to pray;that would come muchlater.Rather,the court emphasized what it saw asthe wrongs of having the government create andsponsor a religious activity.The following year,the high court extended theprinciple outlined in
to a program of daily
page 3
Religion in the Public Schools
[T]he court has repeatedly stressed that the Constitution prohibits public schools from indoctrinating children in religion.But it is not always easyto determine exactly what constitutesindoctrination or school sponsorship of religious activities.

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