Preparing for the Clothed Public Square: Teaching about Religion, Civic Education, and the Constitution

Article excerpt

Although law and religion scholars have long argued about whether American culture marginalizes religious belief, (1) many important indicators suggest that religion indeed plays a prominent role in contemporary American life. (2) America is an extremely religious nation. Polls consistently show that about ninety percent of Americans continue to believe in God, (3) and both church attendance and membership remain at high levels. (4) This religiosity, moreover, spills out into the public square. A great many Americans rely on religious reasons when thinking and talking about public issues. (5) Ninety percent of the members of Congress, by one report, consult their religious beliefs when voting on legislation. (6) A majority of Americans believe that religious organizations should publicly express their views on political issues, (7) and an even stronger majority believe it is important for a President to have strong religious beliefs,s It came as little surprise, then, when all of the major presidential candidates invoked their religious faith in public speeches during the 2000 campaign. (9)

Americans also strongly believe that religion should play an important role in solving society's problems. Over seventy percent of Americans believe that religious organizations--"clearly the major forces mobilizing volunteers in America," (10) according to one prominent scholar--help solve these problems,u Believing this himself, President George W. Bush, within days of taking office, issued an executive order establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to expand opportunities for faith-based organizations. (12) Much public debate in the months following this order focused on the desirability of extending charitable-choice legislation to allow more religious service providers to share in public funds. (13) Religion may or may not have played an equally important role in American public life seventeen years ago when Richard Neuhaus first decried the "Naked Public Squarer," (14) but today at least the public square is substantially clothed with religion. (15)

At the same time, in a series of recent decisions, the United States Supreme Court has significantly limited the judicial role in reviewing government action affecting religion. In Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith, (16) for example, the Court reversed decades of precedent by holding that laws and regulations incidentally burdening religious belief and practice generally would be reviewed under an extremely lenient standard when challenged on Free Exercise Clause grounds. (17) Moreover, in a series of recent Establishment Clause cases, the Court has overruled prior decisions by holding that public institutions can lend computers and other instructional equipment to religious schools (18) and that public school teachers may provide remedial instruction to students on the premises of religious schools. (19) The Court also has upheld a variety of other laws providing aid to religious organizations, (20) as well as laws specifically accommodating religious belief and practice. (21) By limiting the judicial role in these ways, the Court has provided the State with broad latitude to enact legislation affecting religion and therefore has left the primary responsibility for evaluating the desirability of such laws to elected officials and the citizens who elect them.

Both of these states of affairs--the prominence of religion in American public life and the responsibility placed on citizens to evaluate government action affecting religion--strongly suggest that to participate most effectively in public life, citizens must know something about religion. Despite this need, the public institutions that are primarily responsible for preparing citizens for public life in America--the public schools--have not taught students very much about religion. The typical high school curriculum, as interest groups from both sides of the political spectrum agree, has "all but ignore[d] religion. …