Religion in Public Schools

Do you think that there should be religion in public schools?

My friend sent me an interesting link about the guidance regarding prayer in public schools. I just wanted to share some interesting facts (with my own opinions of course) regarding religion in schools that I found in the guidance.

Prayer in schools is Constitutionally protected

If a kid wants to pray in school, the kid can. However, teachers are not allowed to initiate or join the prayer as that would be seen as endorsing a religion.

If I had a child, I would see nothing wrong with my child praying in school. There are so many religions though, so I can imagine the difficulty when trying to accommodate every religion in an institution such as a school.

School officials must be neutral

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer.

Does the above quote mean that a student can just start praying in the middle of class? Probably not seeing as that would be disrupting the classroom.

Teachers are encouraged to dismiss the student temporarily from class if the child has religious obligations.

I imagine it is very tough for a teacher to remain neutral if a child needs to be dismissed because of religion.

Private initiated religious expression is okay.

If I were a teacher and I initiated a Bible study with my students after school, I would be endorsing a religion. Now if a group of kids wanted to use my classroom after school for a Bible study, they would be allowed to do so, but I would be forbidden from participating.

Since the kid is a private individual (whereas I would be a public official), the kid could initiate religious expression on school grounds. As a teacher, I would be forbidden from initiating any kind of religious expression whatsoever (including prayer, Biblical studies, religious encouragement, etc).

Public school officials cannot decide if prayer is present

One example in the guidance was that of prayer at graduation. A school could be seen as endorsing a religion by allowing somebody to pray at graduation. An exception to this would be if a disclaimer was made before the prayer saying that the speaker’s remarks have no affiliation with the school.

Conclusion

I have rather mixed feelings about religion in schools. On one side, I think the kids should do all their religious stuff at home. On the other, I want kids to be able to express themselves freely at school and not have to walk on eggshells. If I were still in school, I wouldn’t want somebody else telling me I couldn’t pray before my meal or join an after school Bible study. I also wouldn’t want somebody forcing a prayer down my throat from a religion I don’t believe in.

So where is the line? Is the line religious neutrality in schools? Is the line no religion in schools? Or is it somewhere else? Please weigh in.

10 Comments

  1. I think there's a difference, especially with younger kids, between praying privately before a meal and formally organizing a group – there are supervision issues with groups. I know that in my schools we weren't allowed to start clubs of any sort without teacher sponsorship.

    I'm not religious, and my personal preference would have been to have seen less religion in my schools than I did, but I think the individual/group boundary is the most fair place to draw the line. (I'm Canadian, so I have no idea whether that would bring up any Constitutional issues in the US.)

  2. I have skimmed the guidance earlier, but this is the first time I've read through it. It is an excellent document for those interested in how religion should work in a public school setting.

    Some highlights: (all quotes can be found in the document referenced in the post above)

    First Amendment to the Constitution, which both prevents the government from establishing religion and protects privately initiated religious expression and activities from government interference and discrimination

    …"there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect."

    …teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities. Nor may school officials attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.

    …public school officials may not themselves decide that prayer should be included in school-sponsored events.

    …students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," and the Supreme Court has made clear that "private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression."

    …where schools permit student expression on the basis of genuinely neutral criteria and students retain primary control over the content of their expression, the speech of students who choose to express themselves through religious means such as prayer is not attributable to the state and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious content. Student remarks are not attributable to the state simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience.

    Teachers may, however, take part in religious activities where the overall context makes clear that they are not participating in their official capacities. Before school or during lunch, for example, teachers may meet with other teachers for prayer or Bible study to the same extent that they may engage in other conversation or nonreligious activities. Similarly, teachers may participate in their personal capacities in privately sponsored baccalaureate ceremonies.

    As for the last quote, teachers do have some leeway if they want to join in to a religious activity.

    Most of boils down to fair treatment of religion by the public school. If a secular student group can advertise in the school newspaper, so can a religious student group. If students are presenting something (and the school doesn't "determine or substantially control the content of what is expressed"), then the student is free to present religious content, without any school liability.

    I recall hearing about valedictorian speeches at graduation that were rejected because of religious content. On the basis of this document, as long as the speakers were chosen "on the basis of genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria and retain primary control over the content of their expression", the school has no right to reject religious content.

    I'm glad that religion is in schools, and more so that this document lays out the details on how that works. If the school isn't advocating the religion, they also have no call to discriminate against that religion. Of course, they can discriminate against it if they also deny all secular groups in the same fashion. I think fair treatment is an excellent example of Constitutional rights in action.

    cetroyer

  3. @Nicole,

    Thanks for weighing in. If I interpreted your comment correctly, let individuals and groups decide, but leave everybody else alone? If that's the case, I don't think that's violating the Constitution.

    @Cetroyer,

    You brought up a good point that teachers can join in religious activities if the teacher is not operating in his/her official capacity.

    One thing that isn't clear to me is if a teacher can join a student or group of students in a Bible study if the teacher is not acting as a teacher but merely a peer. Is it possible for a teacher to become a peer to students under current rules?

  4. Welcome to the blog, Nicole. 🙂

    I think the guidance follows what you said, Ronalfy, up to the point when you start talking about peers.

    When acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, teachers, school administrators, and other school employees are prohibited by the Establishment Clause from encouraging or discouraging prayer, and from actively participating in such activity with students.

    The key part is “…acting…as representatives of the state…”. When they are in that role, they are prohibited from actively participating (not sure what inactive participation looks like…). When they leave that role and are no longer “representatives of the state”, they may participate. However, I don’t think that they have to be a “peer”, seeing as that is more or less impossible for a teacher to be a peer to students.

    The example they give of participation is not very clear/helpful, seeing as it only references activities with other teachers.

    cetroyer

  5. i am doing a reasearch paper on this do u think that parents should realize that thier religious beiliefs are private and should be left at home and schools should have nothing to do with it

  6. it should be allowed. thats not fair to people, because everyone should be able to express their own individual religion. I say make religion something we all need, even if we had to make different rooms for other religions to be taught.

    • I say that the teacher should teach only one religion because that could offend someone else and its all about everyones beliefs

  7. To be honest I believe that we are twisting the first amendment it seems to be that we have changed interpetation to favor the opinion of the people of the day. how soon have we forgotten are forefathers quest for religious freedom do we now seek to overturn there quest. the first amendemnt states that we cant establish national religion if we can remember their history from which they came to America we might be able to understand their original intent. They left England for not being able to worship God the way they saw fit and i believe that is what the first amendment addresses not the doctrine of church and state seperation

  8. It should only be taught in terms of what it is and the historical aspects and the lessons should cover all of the major religions. It should not be taught in public schools that one is better then the other. That is up to the parents of course.

  9. I think that religion should be a choice for children.they shouldn’t be forced to learn it if they don’t want to.in the constitution its states”freedom of speech” that means everyone should have a freedom of speech!!!!!and another thing is that children have one opportunity to get their eduacation and religion can be taught whenever.i love god and i think everyone should but theres some who do not agree with what i say.

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