Does God Belong in Public Schools?

By Kent Greenawalt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Teaching Religious Propositions

IN THE CASES we have examined so far, public schools did not actually teach that particular religious ideas are true, but the Supreme Court's decisions and opinions indicate clearly that such teaching is unconstitutional. The Court has consistently held that the government may not prefer one religion over another,1 and in Abington Township v. Schempp, Justice Clark quoted approvingly Justice Jackson's conception of public schools as providing a “secular education,” inculcating “needed temporal knowledge” and maintaining a “strict and lofty neutrality as to religion.”2 Writing for the Court in holding an antievolution law invalid, Justice Fortas was still more explicit: “Government … must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice.… [I]t may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite.”3

The original common schools did not teach sectarian doctrines, religious ideas that would distinguish Episcopalians from Presbyterians, Congregationalists from Unitarians; but they did teach the existence of a beneficent God who rewards and punishes in this life and the next, and who has shown favor on the American people. Many texts and schools taught the superiority of Protestant understandings to Roman Catholicism. The modern idea that schools should not teach the truth of religious ideas is considerably more encompassing than this older vision. Schools should not teach propositions that are embraced by Christians but not Hindus, by theists but not atheists.4

One might well understand the idea that public schools should not teach religious truths as at the heart of the Supreme Court's approach to religion in the public schools. And, as we have seen, courts that struggle with whether and when school choirs can perform sacred music are asking in a sense whether the schools are endorsing the religious text or not. We live in a liberal democratic society in which people embrace highly diverse views about religion, including atheism and agnosticism,

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