Law & Courts Explainer

Religion in Schools

By Lauren Cole — October 13, 2004 3 min read

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 https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/religion-in-schools/2004/10

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Recruiting and Retaining a More Diverse Teaching Workforce
We discuss the importance of workforce diversity and learn strategies to recruit and retain teachers from diverse backgrounds.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District
Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District

Read Next

Law & Courts School District Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Scope of Transgender Student Rights
A Virginia district appeals a ruling in the case involving Gavin Grimm's effort to use a restroom consistent with his gender identity.
3 min read
Transgender student Gavin Grimm challenged a policy of the Gloucester County, Va., school board that barred him from using the men's restroom. The school board has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.
Transgender student Gavin Grimm challenged a policy of the Gloucester County, Va., school board that barred him from using the men's restroom. The school board has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.
Kristen Zeis/The Daily Press via AP
Law & Courts 3 Years Later, Parkland School Shooting Trial Still in Limbo
It's been more than 1,000 days since a gunman with an AR-15 rifle burst into a Florida high school, killed 17 people, and wounded 17 others.
4 min read
Magaly Newcomb, right, comforts her daughter Haley Newcomb, 14, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, at a memorial outside the school in Parkland, Fla on Feb. 18, 2018. It’s been more than 1,000 days since a gunman with an AR-15 rifle burst into the school, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.
Magaly Newcomb, right, comforts her daughter Haley Newcomb, 14, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, at a memorial outside the school in Parkland, Fla on Feb. 18, 2018. It’s been more than 1,000 days since a gunman with an AR-15 rifle burst into the school, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.
Gerald Herbert/AP
Law & Courts Judge: District Had No Duty to Flag Danger From Student in Parkland Shootings
A Florida judge said the Broward County school district cannot be held liable for failing to predict actions that were beyond its control.
2 min read
Law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 15, 2018 in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 15, 2018 in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Law & Courts Sotomayor Declines Parents' Request for Relief From School Vaccination Requirements
The U.S. Supreme Court justice turned down families seeking to enroll their children in remote learning while lacking school immunizations.
3 min read