How States Are Testing the Church-State Divide in Public Schools

By Evie Blad — June 28, 2024 7 min read
Image of a bible sitting on top of a school backpack.
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Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters has ordered educators in his state to teach the Bible, a move that adds to a list of recent actions by state leaders who are testing the limits of the separation of church and state in public schools.

Walters, who’s built a national profile as an outspoken critic of “woke indoctrination,” sent a June 27 memo to the state’s district superintendents directing them to incorporate the Bible into lessons for 5th through 12th grades as “one of the most historically significant books and a cornerstone of Western civilization.”

“This is not merely an educational directive but a crucial step in ensuring our students grasp the core values and historical context of our country,” Walters wrote, later adding that “immediate and strict compliance is expected.”

The directive follows a slate of recent actions by conservative state officials related to religion in public schools. Most recently, Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry, a Republican, signed a bill to require all public schools to display a copy of the Ten Commandments in every classroom, a law that has since been challenged in court by civil liberties groups.

Supporters of those state actions argue they are not solely religious and therefore constitutional. Opponents call them a canary in a coal mine to test how far leaders can assert religious texts and practices into public education.

Like those previous decisions, Walters’ directive was met with near-immediate condemnation from organizations that advocate for pluralism and minority religions.

“This is textbook Christian Nationalism: Walters is abusing the power of his public office to impose his religious beliefs on everyone else’s children,” said a statement from Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Not on our watch.”

Here are three examples of recent state actions related to religion and education that are stirring controversy.

1. A mandate to teach the Bible in public schools

At a June 27 state board of education meeting where he announced his Bible directive, Walters also condemned a recent decision by the Oklahoma Supreme Court that deemed plans for a Catholic-run charter school a violation of the state and federal constitutions.

“You’re not going to find the separation of church and state in the Constitution,” he said in the livestreamed meeting. “It’s not there.”

He framed the Bible requirement as a way to comply with the state’s learning standards. The religious text provides foundational knowledge necessary to understand the nation’s founding, the Federalist Papers, the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., ethics, and comparative religion, Walters said. His memo said the state may provide materials for schools to teach the Bible “to ensure uniformity in delivery” and that additional directions for “monitoring and reporting implementation” would follow.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters presides over a special state Board of Education meeting to discuss the U.S. Department of Education's "Proposed Change to its Title IX Regulations on Students' Eligibility for Athletic Teams" on April 12, 2023, in Oklahoma City.

Courts have ruled that schools can teach the Bible alongside other texts as an academic, but not devotional, exercise. While Walters seemed to frame his directive in academic terms, critics are skeptical because of his past history of support for conservative Christian causes like prayer in schools and his failure to mention any other significant religious texts that are also woven through literature and history, like the Torah and the Quran.

“It’s a very worrisome step toward state imposition of religion,” said James W. Fraser, professor of history and education at New York University and pastor emeritus of Grace Church in East Boston, Mass.

The Oklahoma directive and other state decisions come during a divisive election year and “a time of extraordinary social, cultural, religious change,” in which religious diversity is growing alongside a trend of Americans not identifying as religious at all, Fraser said.

“As Christianity, and especially Protestantism, becomes not the majority, it’s not surprising to see things that suggest, ‘Oh, if we can’t win people’s hearts and minds, we’ll at least impose it on them.’”

2. Empowering public schools to hire religious chaplains

Three states, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, have passed laws empowering schools to hire religious chaplains or bring them on as volunteers.

“Faith leaders and civic organizations are important additional resources for students who may be facing challenges or need to build community and camaraderie,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said in an April 18 statement as he signed the chaplain bill. “I’m pleased to be able to expand the variety of options that students have at their disposal in school and we have no doubt that these options will enhance the experiences of our students.”

Texas’ school chaplain law, enacted in June 2023, required every school board to take a recorded vote on whether they would adopt a school chaplain policy. The law allows schools to pay chaplains with their share of state funding for school safety and child well-being, or to allow them to work in schools on a volunteer basis. It does not limit the religion of the chaplains schools can hire.

The law gives districts discretion in selecting chaplains and determining their involvement in school programs. During debate on the measure, lawmakers rejected an amendment that would have prohibited school chaplains from proselytizing. They also rejected language, since included in some other states’ chaplain bills, that would have required parental approval for students to seek counseling from chaplains.

Proponents of school chaplains say they will help schools address growing concerns about student mental health and shortages of school counselors and social workers.

“I can’t think of a better qualified person if they’re dealing with a crisis and if the parents are good with it and it comes from a similar faith that they have,” Mineola, Texas, Superintendent Cody Mize told local news station CBS19 after his school board voted to approve a chaplain policy. “To be able to work with someone like-minded in their faith, I think that’s a huge benefit for our kids.”

Critics, including faith-related groups like the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, argue that it’s not the role of public schools to promote students’ spiritual formation. Chaplain bills, which have been considered or passed in at least 15 states, have very few requirements about who is eligible to serve as a chaplain and very few protections to ensure students don’t feel a sense of religious coercion, they argued.

“These are public schools. They’re one of our great remaining institutions where people can come together from diverse backgrounds and we try as best we can to convey an equal dignity in that space,” Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, a former campus chaplain at Princeton University and the president and CEO of the Interfaith Alliance, told Education Week in March. “This disrupts that.”

3. Requiring public schools to display religious texts

Louisiana’s new Ten Commandments law requires all public schools and colleges in the state to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom no later than Jan. 1. Lawmakers in Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia have all introduced similar bills, Education Week reported earlier this month.

Similarly, Louisiana joined 17 states last year in requiring or explicitly allowing schools to display the national motto, “In God We Trust,” on classroom walls.

“I mean, look, this country was founded on Judeo Christian principles and every time we steer away from that, we have problems in our nation,” Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry, a Republican, said in a June 21 interview on Fox News.

"In God We Trust" is seen on a wall at South Park Elementary in Rapid City, S.D., on July 23, 2019. When students return to public schools across South Dakota this fall there should be a new message displayed in a common area, a cafeteria, entryway or other prominent location. A new state law that took effect this month requires all public schools in the state's 149 districts to paint, stencil or otherwise display the national motto "In God We Trust." The South Dakota lawmakers who proposed the law said the requirement was meant to inspire patriotism in the state's public schools.

The Bible describes Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God in a revelation on Mount Sinai. Moses, whom Landry described as “the original lawgiver,” is depicted on the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court, he said. (The building’s features also depict Confucius, Solon, and a scene from The Iliad.) The Ten Commandments are part of understanding the history of American laws, Landry argued.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar Kentucky law in the 1980 case of Stone v. Graham , ruling that the state’s required classroom displays of the Ten Commandments violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from establishing religion.

To comply with the establishment clause, the Supreme Court has held that government actions must have a secular purpose and not create an “excessive entanglement” of the state and religion.

While supporters of Louisiana’s new law argue that it has a purpose beyond the promotion of religion, plaintiffs in a June 25 federal lawsuit argue that it violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution and is unfair to students from minority religious and nonreligious backgrounds.

“The state’s main interest in passing H.B. 71 was to impose religious beliefs on public-school children, regardless of the harm to students and families,” reads the lawsuit, whose plaintiffs include clergy members and families of various religious backgrounds. “The law’s primary sponsor and author, Representative Dodie Horton, proclaimed during a debate over the bill that it ‘seeks to have a display of God’s law in the classroom for children to see what He says is right and what He says is wrong.’”

A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as How States Are Testing the Church-State Divide in Public Schools


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