State lawmakers bring church/state fight to schools

Contrary to culture war mythology, God is alive and well in many, if not most, public schools. Visit almost any … Continued

Contrary to culture war mythology, God is alive and well in many, if not most, public schools.

Visit almost any school in America and you’ll find students sharing their faith, reading their scriptures, saying grace before lunch and, in high schools, meeting in religious clubs.

But in a growing number of state legislatures around the country, lawmakers want more.

Barred by the U.S. Supreme Court from turning the clock back to the days of state-sponsored prayers and devotional Bible reading, state legislatures are discovering creative new ways to get more religion through the schoolhouse door.

Last week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a law encouraging local school boards to create a forum at school-sponsored events for students to give inspirational messages. Although the state can’t require students to give a prayer, critics of the legislation say “inspiration” is a euphemism for “prayer” and student government leaders charged with deciding who speaks will inevitably favor the majority faith.

Texas passed the first of what opponents dub “prayer bills” in 2006. Other state legislatures, including Oklahoma and Tennessee, are currently debating similar legislation.

Creating a “free speech” forum at school events may indeed be constitutional, but lower courts remain divided on where to draw the line on student speech before a captive audience.

Beyond the murky legal issues, giving control of the microphone to student speakers strikes many school administrators as a risky business. Get ready for conflicts and lawsuits when some students offer Christian prayers, others pray Muslim, Wiccan or fill-in-the-blank prayers, and still others speak out for atheism.

Meanwhile in Arizona, lawmakers in the state House voted in February for a “Bible bill” designed to encourage schools to set up Bible courses (it’s now before the state Senate). Although public schools in most states can offer Bible electives now, some legislators want to provide state support and incentives to encourage more such courses.

Georgia, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina already have “Bible bills” – and other Bible Belt states are likely to follow suit.

Of course, Bible literature and history can (and should) be part of the public school curriculum – but only if the material is taught objectively using scholarly materials. Most of the Bible bills, however, give little or no guidance on what safeguards schools should put in place to ensure that Bible courses are academic, not devotional. And little provision is made to prepare teachers or to provide scholarly resources for teaching about the Bible.

A proliferation of Bible courses in public schools, taught by unqualified teachers using the Bible as a history textbook, will be a boon for lawyers – but a legal quagmire for school officials.

Prayer and Bible bills are part of a larger legislative effort by many conservative Christian groups and lawmakers to reverse what they see as a secularization of American schools and society that is hostile to (their) religion.

Religiously-motivated opponents of evolution, for example, are pushing hard in many states for legislation that would require teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution and other topics they deem “controversial” in science. Louisiana passed such a bill in 2008. A similar bill was enacted by the Tennessee legislature last month and awaits the governor’s signature.

Critics of these bills charge that this nationwide effort to change science education is yet another attempt by the Christian Right to undermine teaching the well-established theory of evolution – and a backdoor way to promote religious views as science in public schools. Supporters counter that opening the science curriculum to other views promotes critical thinking and exposes the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

It’s worth recalling that over the past two decades, groups on the left and right managed to reach consensus on a range of religion-in-school issues, from the importance of teaching about religion to the necessity of protecting student religious-liberty rights.

But now groups on all sides are gearing up for a new round of conflict generated by state legislation that goes beyond the consensus by encouraging prayers at school-sponsored events, promoting problematic Bible courses, and sparking new debates over science education.

Welcome to the latest chapter in the long struggle over the role of religion in schools – an argument that dates back to the founding of public education more than 150 years ago.

In the spirit of the times, let’s call it school wars 4.0.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington.

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    No, Christians don’t want to RULE and DOMINATE others.

  • persiflage

    ‘Welcome to the latest chapter in the long struggle over the role of religion in schools – an argument that dates back to the founding of public education more than 150 years ago. ‘

    It goes back to the constitutional separation of church and state – the basis by which religious behavior is strictly regulated in all public institutions.

    Nevertheless, republican politicians primarily in the South are continuously engaged in attempted end runs around the law, in order to pander to their religiously indoctrinated constituents.

    As far as the idea of ‘teaching about religion’ goes, this would be an entirely academic/historical approach to religious institutions, and would need to incorporate a comparative exposure to many religions.

    This particular treatment of religion would avoid religious ideology altogether, and for that reason would never pass muster with any board of education in the Deep South – where the idea is to promote the Protestant brand of Christianity, exclusive of all other religions.

    Thus will the federal courts continue to strike down all such attempts to meld religion with public education.

  • PhillyJimi1

    How much more ignorant and arrogant can these Christians get? This is public education and public schools. What give them the right to impose their beliefs on everyone else? The first amendment is very very clear.

  • usapdx

    No religion of any kind in USA public schools. All Americans can pratice or not pratice a religion.

  • hrobert02

    I eagerly await the first Sphagetti Monster ‘inspirational’ message that shows who the god of gods really is. My His Noodle Appendages wrap around every high school student and show them the true Way.

  • nkri401

    Yeah, Allah is alive and well in many, if not most, public schools.

    How do you like the way the above reads?

  • northernharrier

    “Supporters counter that opening the science curriculum to other views promotes critical thinking and exposes the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.”


    Opening the science curriculum to “creationism” or Intelligent Design ideas is the very opposite of promoting critical thinking about the weaknesses of evolutionary theory. The ideas these conservative legislators and governors wish to introduce into science classes are not science at all. They are based on faith in God, not in hypothoses that can be tested using the scientific method. The people are only trying to pass off their anti-science agenda, and promote their own religious views through the public schools, which is clearly a violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment. Shame on them, and long live the U.S. constitution and the basic freedoms in our constitution.

  • Bryant M

    Why is it that every individual or group that are strong proponents of “religious freedom” pertaining to the first amendment typically promote the expression of the Christian faith? I’ve yet to see a group that allegedly promote Christian agendas cloaked with the title of “religious freedom” in their names push for any of the other thousands of faiths, pagan religions and belief systems that exist. Resist hiding your narrow agenda by using a general term to gain acceptance for your narrow view.

  • Carstonio

    Haynes is trying too hard to give both sides the benefit of the doubt. He needs to do more to acknowledge the true nature of the dispute – it’s between those who seek to keep the schools neutral among competing sects and those who seek to skirt the First Amendment so that schools can endorse their specific sect.

    The place of religion in public schools is clearly defined. Students can pray on their own in student-directed activities such as clubs, but there can be no prayer in official school events. The obvious reason is that there’s no such thing as nonsectarian prayer – all prayer endorses at least one sect’s teachings. The schools can offer courses in comparative religions but these cannot focus on one sect only.

  • theFSM

    Because religion and opinions are a lot like farts; everyone’s stinks, except their own.

  • RickWatcher

    “To educate a person without the bible is to educate a menace to society.” Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration and Father of American Public Schools.
    The congress of the United States funded the first bible printed in the country and church services were held in the congress building and other government buildings and government funded missionaries to the Indian nations. Our fathers did not exclude God from government they excluded government from the free worship and exercise of the Christian religion.
    Seperation of church and state was assurance from Jefferson to the Danbury baptists that government could not interfere in any way with free exercise of religion and that government could not mandate a state church. The idea that church could not interfere in government or that government could not fund religions activities was a socialist/communist judges out of context seed planting of godlessness.
    Abraham Lincoln said, “The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation would be the philosopy of the government in the next.” And since the removal of God from our schools in the 40s, 50s and 60s we not only have a godless government, there are many godless peolpe and it is proven by all the sin and sickness that is being touted as normal.
    Better wake up to the truth before it’s too late.

  • bnutz79


  • bnutz79

    Not true, my confused or misleading friend. I think you need to go back and study up on the Founding Fathers. Also, just because something happened in the past doesn’t make it right or legal, Jim Crow, slavery, and a whole host of issues come to mind.

    I’m sick of evangelical Christians trying to re-write history to fit their narritive. You won’t succeed. There are too many people like myself who won’t allow it.

  • nkri401

    I suppose I am the exception that proves the rule in that by golly does my fart stink to high heaven…

  • WheelChairPal

    Schools should be christian neutral places where only Jews and atheists can practice their religions.


  • Chip_M

    If this were simply about parents wanting their kids to be exposed to their chosen religion as part of their education they could send their kids to parochial schools. That’s what they’re for. But it’s not about that at all. It’s about wanting to proselytize and spread the “good news” to all the other kids. If people want their kids to learn religious history then they can get that in college with qualified professors and not some well meaning Evangelical gym teacher pretending to be a history teacher.