A professor at the Columbia University School of Law, Greenawalt demonstrates that during the past two decades, the legal answer to the question posed in the title has been a conditional yes. Depending on your point of view, schools either have advanced or retreated from the position taken in the 1960s and ’70s, when nervous administrators sometimes attempted to expunge the very mention of God from classrooms. Students, with some restrictions, can now form religious clubs as long as they are free of school sponsorship, and teachers can present religious ideas in the context of literature and history as long as the goal is to further strictly secular understandings.
Greenawalt, a former U.S. Deputy Solicitor General, will strike most readers as a fair-minded moderate, though he knows that moderates in this endlessly contentious debate will be in the cross hairs of many. While he favors a continued ban on school prayer, the teaching of creationism, and anything that smacks of devotionalism, he adamantly insists that religion should be taught to further historical and cultural understandings. Conflicts in the Middle East, he points out, cannot be understood without knowledge of Islam, nor can students fully understand the activism of Martin Luther King Jr. without exploring his Christian faith. So, yes, Greenawalt concludes, there should be God in the public schools, but only as something to ponder and discuss—never to worship.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Books