Public Schools, Religion, and Public Responsibility

By McEwan, Barbara | USA TODAY, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Public Schools, Religion, and Public Responsibility

McEwan, Barbara, USA TODAY

". . . Children whosefamilies practice any of the world religions other than Christianity either see them given passing, less significant regard or ignored entirely [in the classroom]."

There is an old joke that can be heard in faculty lounges around the nation: "There will be prayer in the schools as long as we're giving tests." The irony of the comment also encapsulates the basic constitutional protections of free religious exercise as balanced against government prohibitions against the establishment of religion. Put simply, students do have the right to their free exercise of religious beliefs, and the government--in this case public school educators--must refrain from advancing one religious perspective. A student who is praying silently before a meal or a test is exercising his or her First Amendment right to religious expression. A teacher who devotes class time to making Christmas decorations that will be hung in the classroom is violating First Amendment protections from the establishment of religion.

In 1963, the Supreme Court stated in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett: "The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality."

While the separation of church and state may seem a straightforward, self-explanatory concept, the issues can become clouded in daily public school practice. Teacher and administrator education programs as well as school districts frequently fail to inform educators adequately as to their professional responsibilities in this area. As a result, there is more misinformation to be had than there is evidence of a commitment to maintaining legal and equitable standards.

Educators who plan a series of activities around the theme of religious holidays express reticence about mentioning religion in the legitimate secular context of teaching history, music, literature, or art. In the case cited above, the Supreme Court advocated the direct opposite of these practices. ". . . It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization." Religion can and should play a significant role in the lives of young people. Actively practiced or not, it is an integral part of the diverse cultures represented in today's society.

A holiday party that occurs primarily because it is in keeping with a teacher's cultural heritage well might be considered an example of how the government establishes religion. While educators must refrain from advancing one particular religious perspective, the influence of religious thought should be included in a global curriculum if it accurately is to reflect the U.S.'s multicultural society. To remove religion from the educational conversation is to pull a critical thread from the weave of culture and provide students with a limited understanding of their world.

Misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the law have led to classroom practices that often are the reverse of what the Court intended in its rulings. For instance, there have been cases in which children who chose to spend their free reading time engrossed in Bible stories have had their books pulled from their hands as they are told, "You can't do that in school." At the same time, Christmas decorations are displayed prominently on the bulletin boards and walls of their classrooms. School administrators develop policies that respond more to the predominant values held in their communities than to the rulings of the Supreme Court. …

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