Public Sees Role for Religion In Schools

By Mark Walsh — January 17, 2001 3 min read

A majority of Americans believe religion belongs in the public schools, but most favor a moment of silence over nondenominational or overtly Christian prayers in the classroom, according to a survey released last week by Public Agenda.

For More Information

The report “For Goodness’ Sake: Religion’s Role in American Life,” is available from Public Agenda.

The nonpartisan, New York City-based research organization polled Americans about their attitudes toward the role of religion in public life, from the campaign trail to the classroom. Its report on the results, “For Goodness’ Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life,” devotes special attention to religion in the schools.

“Most think that school prayer, properly implemented, is a good way to shore up the crumbling values of today’s kids,” the report says.

The telephone survey of 1,507 Americans, which was conducted last November and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points, found that 74 percent agreed that school prayer teaches children that “faith in religion and God” is important. Sixty percent disagreed with the view that school prayer violates the U.S. Constitution and “the idea of separation of church and state.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down as a violation of the First Amendment various forms of school prayer it has concluded are school-sponsored. Those include teacher-led prayers in the classroom, clergy-led prayers at graduation ceremonies, and organized student prayers at high school football games. Other variations of school prayer are the source of continuing legal challenges.

In one survey question, respondents were asked to select their favored school prayer policy. More than half, 53 percent, said it would be best for public schools to have a moment of silence, a practice that designates a brief time during the school day when students may engage in silent prayer or reflection. At least one state, Virginia, has a law mandating a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day. The law is being challenged in court.

Twenty percent favored a prayer that referred to God but no specific religion, while 6 percent favored a Christian prayer that referred to Jesus. Nineteen percent favored avoiding all those activities, and 1 percent had no opinion.

The survey also suggests the complex nature of Americans’ views on religion in the schools. A majority, 57 percent, agreed that school prayer was unfair to parents who believe that they, and not the schools, should decide what to teach their children about religion.

Some respondents were troubled by the prospect of more religion in the schools. Sixty percent of respondents identifying themselves as Jewish and 56 percent of those calling themselves nonreligious believe there should be no prayers or moments of silence in public school classrooms.

Defining Terms

One longtime observer of the debate over religion in schools said he found the survey results encouraging, although he wished the poll had better defined what was meant by school prayer.

“I wished they had asked more about the difference between school-sponsored prayer and student prayer,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum, an Arlington, Va.-based foundation that focuses on issues of free speech and freedom of religion.

“I thought it was instructive that so many people would think a moment of silence would be a good way to go,” added Mr. Haynes, who often consults with school districts and community groups over religious controversies. “The overall message is that Americans do think there is a place for religion in schools, but they don’t want religion imposed on students.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Public Sees Role for Religion In Schools