Does God Belong in Public Schools?

Does God Belong in Public Schools?

Does God Belong in Public Schools?

Does God Belong in Public Schools?


Controversial Supreme Court decisions have barred organized school prayer, but neither the Court nor public policy exclude religion from schools altogether. In this book, one of America's leading constitutional scholars asks what role religion ought to play in public schools. Kent Greenawalt explores many of the most divisive issues in educational debate, including teaching about the origins of life, sex education, and when--or whether--students can opt out of school activities for religious reasons.

Using these and other case studies, Greenawalt considers how to balance the country's constitutional commitment to personal freedoms and to the separation of church and state with the vital role that religion has always played in American society. Do we risk distorting students' understanding of America's past and present by ignoring religion in public-school curricula? When does teaching about religion cross the line into the promotion of religion?

Tracing the historical development of religion within public schools and considering every major Supreme Court case, Greenawalt concludes that the bans on school prayer and the teaching of creationism are justified, and that the court should more closely examine such activities as the singing of religious songs and student papers on religious topics. He also argues that students ought to be taught more about religion--both its contributions and shortcomings--especially in courses in history. To do otherwise, he writes, is to present a seriously distorted picture of society and indirectly to be other than neutral in presenting secularism and religion.

Written with exemplary clarity and even-handedness, this is a major book about some of the most pressing and contentious issues in educational policy and constitutional law today.


In the course of more extensive studies about religious liberty, both the free exercise of religion and the rule against establishing any religion, I became interested in the various ways in which issues about religion concern American public schools. After delving into topics such as school prayer, religious clubs, teaching about religion, and special treatment of students whose parents have religious objections to the curriculum, I concluded that most of the law about religion in schools could be explained by a principle that public schools should not sponsor religion; but that this principle, standing alone, fails to resolve many intricate issues of constitutional law and educational policy. This book explains and analyzes these problems.

My understanding of aspects of the subject increased greatly at presentations and conferences at the University of Virginia, the University of Colorado, the University of Notre Dame Law School, the University of Texas Law School, at Columbia University (at the “Fifteen Minute Paper Group” in the law school and at a meeting of the Center of Science and Religion). At the conference “Teaching about Religion in Public Schools,” sponsored in May 2003 by the First Amendment Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, organized by Charles C. Haynes and Melissa Rogers, I was able to talk to many of those who have been most active in trying to introduce more teaching about religion into public schools. Students participating in a seminar in the law of church and state that I have taught over the years have been a continuing source of insight.

I have benefited a great deal from the comments of many colleagues, including Barbara Armacost, Vincent Blasi, Michael Dorf, Melvin Eisenberg, David Mapel, Henry Monaghan, James Nickel, Lawrence Sager, Peter Strauss, Jeremy Waldron, and Jay Wexler. Philip Kitcher's help on the three chapters about science and religion was indispensable. He suggested research sources, and his critique of various drafts saved me from a good deal of imprecision and error. My brother Kim, a public high school teacher, provided an extremely valuable perspective. As readers of the manuscript for Princeton University Press, Christopher . . .

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