God goes back to school

Millions of kids return to school this week – and, contrary to culture-war rhetoric, most of them won’t leave their … Continued

Millions of kids return to school this week – and, contrary to culture-war rhetoric, most of them won’t leave their faith at the schoolhouse door.

As classes get underway, public school students across America will form religious clubs, pray together in their free time, distribute religious literature to classmates, share their religious convictions in class discussions and in many other ways belie the myth of the “godless public schools.”

Many teachers, meanwhile, are gearing up to teach about religions in various history and literature classes. State standards, especially in the social studies, now require that students learn something (and, in some states, a considerable amount) about the major faith traditions.

This much religion in schools may strike some readers as surprising and new. But God hasn’t come back to public education overnight.

In fact, it has taken over two decades for student religious expression and study about religions to slowly but steadily return to public schools because of court decisions, legislation, and broadly supported guidelines issued by religious, educational and civil liberties groups. (Download consensus guides from Finding Common Ground)

Considering the slow pace of most changes in public education, the high level of inclusion of religion in only 20 years is nothing less than a quiet revolution.

Of course, the return of religion to public schools doesn’t mean that all schools are getting religion right.

Two weeks ago, I visited a school district in Michigan that remains mostly silent about religion in policies and practices. As a result, school climate suffers in this religiously diverse community. In a recent survey of students, for example, every Muslim student reported having been harassed because of his or her faith.

In districts still afraid to deal with religion, religious diversity remains the ignored diversity. Administrators and teachers are unsure how to deal with student requests for religious accommodation and often mistakenly discourage student religious expression that is protected by the First Amendment.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I recently received an email from an employee of a California public school who complained about a mandatory school assembly that included proselytizing and prayers led by a local pastor. School officials in this district apparently haven’t gotten the memo explaining that school-sponsored religious practices are unconstitutional.

Although increasingly rare, pockets of schools (especially in the rural Southeast) continue to defy the law by promoting religion through religious-themed assemblies, teacher-led prayer, distribution of Bibles in classrooms and other unconstitutional practices. Only when some courageous parent or student finally complains does the offending school begin to clean up its act.

But here’s the good news: Growing numbers of school officials across America understand and apply the First Amendment when addressing the role of religion in their schools.

In public schools that get it right, teachers and administrators uphold religious freedom by remaining neutral toward religion while simultaneously protecting the right of students to express their faith within the framework established by current law.

By modeling the First Amendment arrangement in religious liberty – no establishment, but free exercise – schools prepare students to live and work together as citizens of one nation with people of all faiths and none.

In other words, getting religion right in schools matters because getting religious freedom right in America matters.

Charles C. Haynes

is senior scholar at the

Freedom Forum First Amendment Center

and director of the

Religious Freedom Education Project

at the


in Washington.

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  • EW88

    These are good points. I hope that teachers do a better job remaining neutral in matters of religion than they do of politics. The liberal bias in public education is shameful. Also, if they teach Mormonism the way that the liberal press reports on Mormonism, students will get skewed or incurrate understanding of that faith. I am a Mormon. I understand that the press is trying to downplay Romney at every angle possible, but I’m sure most Americans don’t because they’re not aware of the bias in reporting. For example, all of the personal accounts I’ve read of Romney over the past year have agreed that Romney is kind, caring, trustworthy, humble, competent, thrifty, and funny. Does that come through in news coverage? Absolutely not. Read both sides, people, because both sides leave stuff out. How can you make an informed opinion with only one viewpoint? What is true for public education is also true in media.

  • nkri401

    A school is not a temple (Church).

    Get it?

  • Rongoklunk

    We should be working hard to explain where religions came from, and how they were thought-up by our ancient ancestors out of fear and ignorance – rather than encouraging people to keep on believing in a supernatural God or Gods. Much of the world has ditched the God hypothesis, and are non the worst for it.
    Science rejects it. (see professor Victor Stenger’s “God; The Failed Hypothesis”) and scientists like Dawkins and Hawking dismiss it too, as does the rocket scientist Neil Degrasse Tyson (google “Perimeter of Ignorance”) as do 94% of members of the Academy of Sciences. Time to think seriously of letting go of God. It’s impossible to believe in such a being who nobody ever saw or heard from, and who was never around to prevent or help-out during tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, famines, floods, droughts or anything whatever.