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Lindsay Kaye Ohlert and Mary Jo Loch

April 13, 2010: Religion in Public School

1. _____ Having a daily enforced “moment of silence” is acceptable.

2. _____ Religion-related groups can meet on campus as long as the school allows equal access to
all faiths and philosophies.

3. _____ Teacher-led prayer is acceptable as long as it is optional.

4. _____ It is unconstitutional to require creationism be taught alongside evolution in science


5. _____ Religious texts cannot be read over the school intercom.


Prayer and Religion in Public
The Gist of the AU Article

 Ninety percent of America's youngsters attend public

schools. These students come from homes that
espouse a variety of religious and philosophical
beliefs. Given the incredible diversity of American
society, it's important that our public schools respect
the beliefs of everyone and protect parental rights.
The schools can best do this by not sponsoring
religious worship. This principle ensures that
America's public schools are welcoming to all
children and leaves decisions about religion where
they belong with the family.
Supreme Court Decisions

 The push for religious neutrality in public schools

began in 1948 with McCollum v. Board of Education.
 The court found religious instruction in public
schools a violation of the establishment clause
and therefore unconstitutional.
Zorach v. Clausen, 1952

 Court finds that release time from public school

classes for religious instruction does not
violate the establishment clause.
Engel v. Vitale, 1962

 Court finds school sponsored prayer

Abington School District
v. Schempp, 1963

 Court finds Bible reading over school intercom

Epperson v. Arkansas, 1968

 Court says the state cannot ban the teaching of

Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985

 Court finds state law enforcing a moment of silence

in schools had a religious purpose and
is therefore unconstitutional.
Edwards v. Aquillard, 1987

 Court finds state law requiring equal treatment for

creationism has a religious purpose and
is therefore unconstitutional.
Board of Education v. Mergens, 1990

 The court rules that the Equal Access Act does not
violate the First Amendment. Public
schools that receive federal funds and maintain a
"limited open forum" on school grounds after
school hours cannot deny "equal access" to student
groups based upon "religious, political,
philosophical, or other content."
Lee v. Weisman, 1992

 Court finds prayer at public school graduation

ceremonies violates the establishment
clause and is therefore unconstitutional.
Students can face harassment and threats based
on religion

 Somali students in St. Cloud. What kind of

harassment did they face?

 Harassment of Jewish students in Alabama

"Every day that I send my children to Pike
County schools, I wonder if I am sending them
in to a war zone. I feel that the environment
threatens every value that my husband and I
have tried to teach them at home. I have asked
school officials how I can teach my children to
be tolerant human beings and not bigots when
they are subjected to outright religious
persecution and bigotry in school."
The Law

 Prayer is not banned, only the leading of prayers by

school officials. Students are free to pray on their
 Students may read the Bible or other religious books
on their own as their schedules permit.
 Religious groups may meet during non-instructional
time if other student groups are allowed to meet.
 Courses about religion are legal as long as they are
 Teachers must not pressure students to take part in
religious activities. They must be neutral.
Take Away

 It is our job to help students learn, which means we

should try our best to make students feel safe and
comfortable by remaining neutral about students
religious backgrounds.
As a teacher, how would you handle a situation where…
1. A student asks you, “What religion are you?”

2. Your school has both a student-run Christian group and a student-run Muslim group, and you are the
faculty sponsor of both. A Christian student joins the Muslim club, saying that he is a “seeker.” At
first he is a quiet observer at meetings, but eventually he begins to proselytize, including handing out
Bible tracts and encouraging the Muslim students to “accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.” The
Muslim students request that he be barred from attending meetings of the group.

3. A student brings a Bible for sustained silent reading time, and does all her independent reading
presentations and book reports on books of the Bible.

4. There are a handful of Jewish students at your school, and other students routinely make negative
remarks about Jews, snatch yarmulkes to play “keep away,” and start physical alterations while
saying anti-Jewish slurs. Other teachers encourage the Jewish students to participate in Christian
religious activities such as prayers and a nativity play. An administrator is heard to comment, “"If
parents will not save souls, we have to."

5. Your school bans students from wearing crucifixes or rosaries on the basis that they have been used
as a “gang symbol.” Teachers are directed to request that students wearing crucifixes remove or
conceal them, and if students do not comply, they are to be sent to the office. Two noncompliant
students are suspended the first week this policy is in effect.

6. A Jehovah’s Witness parent informs you that her daughter is unable to celebrate student birthdays in
class, as celebrating birthdays is against their religion.

Follow-up discussion question: What experiences have you had with religion in school? Has your own
religious background (or lack thereof) affected your educational experience?

It is possible to accommodate students’ religion-related beliefs and practices while fully following laws
regarding the separation of church and state and without discomfiting students of other faiths.

Please list a few concrete things you intend to do in your classroom to make this happen!