When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

                           Benjamin Franklin



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Americans for Religious Liberty:

Article - Religion and Public Education


by Edd Doerr

On 4 June 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 224 to 203 for the so-called Religious Freedom Amendment, sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) and more than 150 co-sponsors. (1) The measure fell well short of the two-thirds majority required to pass a constitutional amendment. In fact, the 52.4% vote dropped well below the 59.7% garnered on a similar proposal in 1971, the last time a school prayer amendment reached the House floor. The amendment's defeat is especially significant because it had strong backing from the House majority leadership and was the culmination of a massive four-year campaign led by televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.

The Istook Amendment aroused strong opposition from education organizations, mainstream religious groups, and civil liberties organizations because it would have embroiled school districts and communities in prolonged, bitter, divisive conflicts over religious activities in the classroom or at graduations, athletic events, school assemblies, and other gatherings. In addition, the amendment's clause against "deny[ing] equal access to a benefit on account of religion" would have cleared the way for massive tax support of sectarian schools and other institutions. Opponents of the amendment correctly worried that it would weaken or wreck the First Amendment, taking the first major bite out of the Bill of Rights since its ratification in 1791.

Two weeks before the vote on the amendment, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held the first of three projected hearings on "Schools and Religion." Most of the 16 experts who spoke at the hearing (including this writer, I must disclose) agreed that the relevant Supreme Court rulings and other developments have pretty much brought public education into line with the religious neutrality required by the First Amendment and the increasingly pluralistic nature of our society. A fair balance has been established between the free exercise rights of students and the constitutional obligation of neutrality.

The speakers attributed the current reasonably satisfactory situation to 50 years of appropriate Supreme Court rulings plus two specific developments: passage by Congress in 1984 of the Equal Access Law, which allows student-initiated religious groups or other groups not related to the curriculum to meet, without school sponsorship, during noninstructional time; and the U.S. Department of Education's issuance in August 1995 of guidelines on "Religious Expression in Public Schools."

A minority of speakers at the hearing cited anecdotes about alleged violations of studentsí religious freedom. These turned out to be either exaggerations or cases of mistakes by teachers or administrators that were easily remedied by a phone call or letter. The occasional violations of student rights, like "man bites dog" stories, are few and far between and certainly do not point to any need to amend the Constitution.

Julie Underwood, general counsel designate for the National School Boards Association, told the hearing that inquiries to the NSBA about what is or is not permitted in public schools declined almost to the vanishing point once the "Religious Expression in Public Schools" guidelines were published.

The guidelines grew out of a document titled "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law," issued in April 1995 by a broad coalition of 36 religious and civil liberties groups. (2) The statement declared that the Constitution "permits much private religious activity in and around the public schools and does not turn the schools into religion-free zones." The statement went on to detail what is and is not permissible in the schools.

On 12 July 1995 President Clinton discussed these issues in a major address at - appropriately - James Madison High School in northern Virginia and announced that he was directing the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Attorney General, to issue advisory guidelines to every public school district in the country. This was done in August.

In his weekly radio address of 30 May 1998, anticipating the June 4 House debate and vote on the Istook Amendment, the President again addressed the issue and announced that the guidelines, updated slightly, were being reissued and sent to every district. This effort undoubtedly helped to sway the House vote.

The guidelines, based on 50 years of court rulings (from the 1948 McCollum decision to the present), on common sense, and on a healthy respect for American religious diversity, have proved useful to school boards, administrators, teachers, students, parents, and religious leaders. Following is a brief summary.

Permitted - "Purely private religious speech by students"; nondisruptive individual or group prayer, grace before meals, religious literature reading; student speech about religion or anything else, including that intended to persuade, so long as it stops short of harassment; private baccalaureate services; teaching about religion; inclusion by students of religious matter in written or oral assignments where not inappropriate; student distribution of religious literature on the same terms as other material not related to school curricula or activities; some degree of right to excusal from lessons objectionable on religious or conscientious grounds, subject to applicable state laws; off-campus released time or dismissed time for religious instruction; teaching civic values; student-initiated "Equal Access" religious groups of secondary students during noninstructional time.

Prohibited - School endorsement of any religious activity or doctrine; coerced participation in religious activity; engaging in or leading student religious activity by teachers, coaches, or officials acting as advisors to student groups; allowing harassment of or religious imposition on "captive audiences"; observing holidays as religious events or promoting such observance; imposing restrictions on religious expression more stringent than those on nonreligious expression; allowing religious instruction by outsiders on school premises during the school day.

Required - "Official neutrality regarding religious activity."

In reissuing the guidelines, Secretary Riley urged school districts to use them or to develop their own, preferably in cooperation with parents, teachers, and the "broader community." He recommended that principals, administrators, teachers, schools of education, prospective teachers, parents, and students all become familiar with them.

As President Clinton declared in his May 30 address, "Since we've issued these guidelines, appropriate religious activity has flourished in our schools, and there has apparently been a substantial decline in the contentious argument and litigation that has accompanied this issue for too long."

As good and useful as the guidelines are, there remain three areas in which problems continue: proselytizing by adults in public schools, music programs that fall short of the desired neutrality, and teaching appropriately about religion.

There are conservative evangelists, such as Jerry Johnston and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who have described public schools as "mission fields." In communities from coast to coast, proselytizers from well-financed national organizations, such as Campus Crusade and Young Life, and volunteer "youth pastors" from local congregations have operated in public schools for years. They use a variety of techniques: presenting assembly programs featuring "role model" athletes, getting permission from school officials to contact students one-on-one in cafeterias and hallways, volunteering as unpaid teaching aides, and using substance abuse lectures or assemblies to gain access to students. It is not uncommon for these activities to have the tacit approval of local school authorities. Needless to say, these operations tend to take place more often in smaller, more religiously homogeneous communities than in larger, more pluralistic ones.

Religious music in the public school curriculum, in student concerts and theatrical productions, and at graduation ceremonies has long been a thorny issue. As Secretary Riley's 1995 and 1998 guidelines and court rulings have made clear, schools may offer instruction about religion, but they must remain religiously neutral and may not formally celebrate religious special days. What then about religious music, which looms large in the history of music?

As a vocal and instrumental musician in high school and college and as an amateur adult musician in both secular and religious musical groups, I feel qualified to address this issue. There should be no objection to the inclusion of religious music in the academic study of music and in vocal and instrumental performances, as long as the pieces are selected primarily for their musical or historical value, as long as the program is not predominantly religious, and as long as the principal purpose and effect of the inclusion is secular. Thus there should be no objection to inclusion on a school production of religious music by Bach or Aaron Copland's arrangement of such 19th-century songs as "Simple Gifts" or "Let Us Gather by the River." What constitutes "musical or historical value" is, of course, a matter of judgment and controversy among musicians and scholars, so there can be no simple formula for resolving all conflicts.

Certain activities should clearly be prohibited. Public school choral or instrumental ensembles should not be used to provide music for church services or celebrations, though a school ensemble might perform a secular music program in a church or synagogue as part of that congregation's series of secular concerts open to the public and not held in conjunction with a worship service. Sectarian hymns should not be included in graduation ceremonies; a Utah case dealing with that subject has been turned down for Supreme Court review. Students enrolled in music programs for credit should not be compelled to participate in performances that are not primarily religiously neutral.

As for teaching about religion, while one can agree with the Supreme Court that public schools may, and perhaps should, alleviate ignorance in this area in a fair, balanced, objective, neutral, academic way, getting from theory to practice is far from easy. The difficulties should be obvious. Teachers are very seldom adequately trained to teach about religion. There are no really suitable textbooks on the market. Educators and experts on religion are nowhere near agreement on precisely what ought to be taught, how much should be taught and at what grade levels, and whether such material should be integrated into social studies classes, when appropriate, or offered in separate courses, possibly electives. And those who complain most about the relative absence of religion from the curriculum seem to be less interested in neutral academic study than in narrower sectarian teaching.

Textbooks and schools tend to slight religion not out of hostility toward religion but because of low demand, lack of time (if you add something to the curriculum, what do you take out to make room for it?), lack of suitable materials, and fear of giving offense or generating unpleasant controversy.

The following questions hint at the complexity of the subject. Should teaching about religion deal only with the bright side of it and not with the dark side (religious wars, controversies, bigotry, persecutions, and so on)? Should instruction deal only with religions within the U.S., or should it include religions throughout the world? Should it be critical or uncritical? Should all religious traditions be covered or only some? Should the teaching deal only with sacred books - and, if so, which ones and which translations? How should change and development in all religions be dealt with?

To be more specific, should we teach only about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, or also about the Salem witch trials and the execution of Quakers? Should schools mention only the Protestant settlers in British North America or also deal with French Catholic missionaries in Canada, Michigan, and Indiana and with the Spanish Catholics and secret Jews in our Southwest? Should we mention that Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister but ignore the large number of clergy who defended slavery and then segregation on Biblical grounds?

Should teaching about religion cover such topics as the evolution of Christianity and its divisions, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the religious wars after the Reformation, the long history of anti-Semitism and other forms of murderous bigotry, the role of religion in social and international tensions (as in Ireland, in the former Yugoslavia, and in India and Pakistan), the development in the U.S. of religious liberty and church/state separation, denominations and religions founded in the U.S., controversies over women's rights and reproductive rights, or newer religious movements?

The probability that attempts to teach about religion will go horribly wrong should caution public schools to make haste very slowly in this area. In my opinion, other curricular inadequacies - less controversial ones, such as those in the fields of science, social studies, foreign languages, and world literature - should be remedied before we tackle the thorniest subject of all.

And let us not forget that the American landscape has no shortage of houses of worship, which generally include religious education as one of their main functions. Nothing prevents these institutions from providing all the teaching about religion they might desire.

The late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan summed up the constitutional ideal rather neatly in his concurring opinion in Abington Township S.D. v. Schempp, the 1963 school prayer case: "It is implicit in the history and character of American public education that the public schools serve a uniquely public function: the training of American citizens in an atmosphere free of parochial, divisive, or separatist influence of any sort - an atmosphere in which children may assimilate a heritage common to all American groups and religions. This is a heritage neither theistic nor atheistic, but simply civic and patriotic."

Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty, is a former social studies teacher. This article originally appeared in the November 1998 Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

End notes

  1. Text of H.J. Res. 78, Rep. Ernest Istook's Religious Freedom Amendment: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any State shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."go back to the article
  2. Copies of the statement are available free of charge from Americans for Religious Liberty, P.O. Box 6656, Silver Spring, MD 20916.go back to the article


Americans for Religious Liberty - P.O.Box 6656 - Silver Spring, MD 20916
Telephone: 301-460-1111 - Email: arlinc@verizon.net