Religion and Education: Walking the Line in Public Schools

By Marshall, Joanne M. | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Religion and Education: Walking the Line in Public Schools


Marshall, Joanne M., Phi Delta Kappan


World events, increasing diversity in the classroom, and headlines about the latest court cases all ensure that religion will remain a sensitive and sometimes contentious issue in the public schools. Ms. Marshall challenges readers to think about how they would respond to 12 hypothetical classroom situations involving religion.

IN RECENT years religion has moved out of the private sphere and into the public square. Whether it's the invocation for God to bless America, the sudden interest in Islam, or the tale of Alabama Judge Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments, religion and its impact on our world have become less private and more public. Therefore, teachers who wish to involve their students with the world around them must also address religious topics in their classrooms.

However, issues related to religion generally make teachers very nervous. Teachers continue to struggle to observe the line between private and public expression and between church and state. This line has usually been marked by legal decisions, and no one wants to be the cause of a lawsuit. Fortunately, there are several resources available to assist teachers who are uncertain about how to teach sensitive religious topics and what they can say about their own religious beliefs. (Some of these materials are listed in the Resource Guide on page 242.) To test your own knowledge of where the line is currently drawn, try the following 12-question self-test. Are the following actions on the part of teachers and students okay or not okay?

1. A Jewish teacher lectures on the Five Pillars of Islam.

2. During a class discussion of the U.S. role in the Middle East, two students claim that the U.S. is obligated to "protect the Holy Land because America is a Christian nation."

3. During a unit on the American civil rights movement, a teacher assigns a group of students to research the role of the church in African American life.

4. A student brings a Bible to class every day and reads it silently during free reading time.

5. A student wears a T-shirt to class that reads, "Hell will keep you warm" on the front and "Are you saved?" on the back.

6. In response to an essay prompt asking students to write about the most influential person in their lives, a number of students write about Jesus.

7. In response to a speech prompt that asks students to give a seven- minute speech about the most influential person in their lives, one student talks about the Dalai Lama and Buddhist teachings.

8. A Muslim girl wears a head covering (hijab) to class.

9. A teacher tells his class that he is fasting for Ramadan.

10. A teacher has a calendar on her desk with Bible verses on each page.

11. After polling her class and finding that all of the students identify themselves as Christian, a teacher holds a party on the last day of school before winter break and plays Christmas music at it.

12. A teacher tells students who are being rude to one another that they have a moral obligation to be good and kind to one another.

Drawing the Line

The line between public and private expression of religion requires balancing the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the constitutional prohibition against the establishment of religion. Public schools, as government entities, and the teachers in them are allowed neither to inhibit the free exercise of religious expression nor to encourage it. This means that teachers may teach about religion but may not teach the religion itself. Students have a little more leeway in their religious expression because they are not official representatives of government. My discussion of the answers to the quiz reflects this line of thought but should not be construed as legal advice.

1. A Jewish teacher lectures on the Five Pillars of Islam. This is okay. It is permissible as long as the lecture does not "advance or inhibit" (Lemon v.

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