Law & Courts Explainer

Religion in Schools

By Lauren Cole — October 13, 2004 3 min read
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Owing to our nation’s great diversity and distinct constitutional foundations, the interelation between religion and public schools has long been a complex and hotly contested issue.

The majority of debates over religion and education stem from the “establishment” or “religion” clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Today, that clause is commonly associated with the concept of “separation of church and state.” Yet the challenge for schools has been to balance that separation with the prescribed religious freedom.

In the past century, the U.S. Supreme Court has protected students’ individual abilities to pray, wear religious dress, and express their religious beliefs while in school, yet barred these practices where they are perceived as disruptive, discriminatory, or coercive to peers who may not share those same beliefs. School-led prayer and student-led prayer at events like graduation ceremonies and football games have been ruled unconstitutional in publicly funded institutions because they are believed to create a coercive environment. The same basic reasoning recently led a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to declare the practice of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools unconstitutional due to the phrase “under God.” Although a 1943 Supreme Court decision forbids schools from forcing students to say the pledge, many states and school districts retain policies that the schools lead it every morning.

Yet even strict judicial interpretation of the First Amendment does not require that religion be entirely excluded from the public classroom’s curriculum. When outlawing required Bible study in schools in 1963, the Supreme Court established that religion may be taught where appropriate so long as it amounts to objective instruction about religion rather than indoctrination. According to guidelines issued in 1998 by the Department of Education, public schools may, for example, teach courses in the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible-as-literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States.

Even so, federal court rulings that forbid states from mandating equal classroom time for religious theories have caused some devout Christians to feel ostracized by the secular public curriculum, as is evident in the controversy over evolution and creationism. Conservative Christians’ disillusionment with the secular public school curriculum has been seen as one factor in the growing home schooling movement.

Another important issue involving the interplay between schools and religion is whether or not religious organizations may use government resources for education. Part of the school vouchers debate, for example, centers around the question of whether government money can be used to subsidize religious schooling. In June 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Cleveland, Ohio’s 7-year-old voucher program in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, holding that the funding itself did not promote the establishment of religion and the decision to use those funds to attend a religious school is at the personal discretion of the family, not dictated by the state.

Under the federal “Equal Access Act” of 1984, publicly funded schools allowing extracurricular based clubs must also allow students to form religious extracurricular clubs. Likewise, the 2001 Supreme Court ruling in Good News Club v. Milford Central School set a legal precedent obligating schools to allow outside religious groups to use their facilities during non-school hours if they provide the same use to other non-school organizations.

President George W. Bush’s controversial faith-based initiative seeks to push the issue even further by letting religious groups apply for federal grant money in order to provide social and educational services for children in after-school programs.

How to Cite This Article
Cole, L. (2004, September 21). Religion in Schools. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from


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