Contrary to culture-war rhetoric from the Right, there is more student religious expression and more study about religion in public schools today than at any time in the last 100 years. And contrary to dire warnings from the Left, much of the religion that goes to school these days arrives through the First Amendment door.
Of course, this isn't to suggest that all school districts get religion right. In some parts of the country, school officials continue to unconstitutionally promote school-sponsored religious activities. In other places, administrators and teachers wrongly censor constitutionally protected student religious expression. And throughout the country, the public school curriculum still falls short of serious consideration of religious ways of seeing the world (Nord, 2010; Lester, 2011).
Nevertheless, a quiet revolution in public policy over the last two decades is transforming how many (if not most) public schools address religion during the school day. For public school leaders, understanding the new and expanded place of religion in schools--especially what is and isn't permissible under current law--is critical for preventing conflict and building public support for public education.
What's at stake?
Getting religion right in public schools matters because religion and religious liberty matter. For better and for worse, religious convictions play a central role is shaping events in America and throughout the world. A cursory glance at the daily headlines reminds us that religious differences are at the heart of many of the world's most violent conflicts. And in the United States, rapidly expanding religious diversity presents daunting new challenges for building one nation out of many faiths and cultures in the 21st century (Eck, 2001).
Despite the recent increase in study about religion in schools, many Americans still have little or no knowledge about religions other than their own--and even that knowledge is often thin (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2010; Prothero, 2007). Religious illiteracy may be a contributing factor to the rising intolerance in the United States, including the growing number of hate crimes motivated by anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. If we hope to prevent religious discrimination and division in the United States, schools need to take religion seriously, not only to increase religious literacy, but also to promote religious freedom as a fundamental, inalienable right for every person (Lester & Roberts, 2006).
How we got here
To understand the significance and scope of the recent changes in how many public schools address religion, a little history is needed. Twenty years ago, many public schools did, in fact, come close to being religion-free zones. In the wake of controversial and widely misrepresented U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning state-sponsored religious practices, worried educators often overreacted by trying to keep all religion out of schools. Textbook publishers largely ignored religion, and teachers wouldn't touch it with the proverbial 10-foot pole. Some administrators mistakenly confused student speech with government speech and told students to leave their religion at the schoolhouse door.
Of course, some other schools, especially in the rural South, continued to do what they had always done to promote the majority's religion through various school-sponsored practices.
But that was 20 years ago. Today, most state social studies standards and textbooks include considerable mention of religion; student religious clubs meet on hundreds, if not thousands, of high school campuses; the sight of Christian students praying around the flagpole or in the lunchroom is commonplace; and Muslim students routinely perform daily prayers during the school day--to cite just a few of many examples.
What accounts for this dramatic change in such a relatively short time? …