Does God Belong in Public Schools?

By Kent Greenawalt | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 7
TEACHING AND RELIGION IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOL

THE SUPREME COURT'S decisions forbidding prayers and devotional Bible reading have proved among the most controversial the Court has ever rendered, yet whether to begin the school day with a few minutes of devotion matters far less than what schools teach about religion. Constitutional lawyers have given little attention to this nettlesome issue because the Court, having determined that teaching about religion is all right, has not reviewed programs that educators have labeled in this way.

Many citizens continue to resent the Court's assumption that schools cannot present Christianity, or theocratic religion, as true; but even people who agree that schools should not teach the truth of religious ideas diverge in their opinions about what precisely schools should do. At one end of the spectrum are those who want public schools virtually to ignore religion—leaving the subject to the home and private institutions. At the other end of the spectrum, people urge that schools, though refraining from any official doctrine, should present religious worldviews in a full way. In most schools, practice now lies closer to the former end of the spectrum—little is said about religion. Thoughtful critics have argued that this approach is unfair and even unconstitutional.

Part of the disagreement turns on how we should characterize present practice: is it neutral toward religion or does it teach a set of beliefs—secular humanism—that is opposed to traditional religious views? If public schools are inculcating one religion, albeit a nontheistic one, or ideas that are directly opposed to religious conceptions, fairness may require righting the balance. Of course, as the introduction suggests, we have no guarantee that teaching about religion will lead students to be more religious; learning a spectrum of religious views and learning more about what they take as negative aspects of religion could draw them away from faith they have accepted up to that point. But whatever the exact effects, schools should aim for fair treatment of major subjects of human concerns.

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