Faith & Freedom
The Case for Separation of Church and State

Religion in the Public Schools
Historical Background
School Vouchers
"Charitable Choice"
Frequently Asked Questions

Related ADL Articles:
Guidelines for Religion in the Public Schools
FAQ's about Religion in the Public Schools
School Vouchers: The Wrong Choice for Public Education
The Case Against 'Charitable Choice'
FAQ's about 'Charitable Choice'


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Religion in the Public Schools

The greatest current threat to separation of church and state is in the public schools, the very place that Americans of every background first learn the critical values of freedom and tolerance. And at a time when our population is growing increasingly diverse, those values are more important than ever. The public schools must make students from every background feel equally welcome if democracy is to endure.

The introduction of sectarian practices in this arena would undo that important function. They would intimidate students from religious minorities and compromise the religious expression of all groups.

Students from minority religions are particularly vulnerable. No one feels more embarrassed and isolated than a Jewish or Muslim child forced to participate in or remove himself from Christian-oriented activities. At the same time, students from majority groups may end up finding their own manner of worship dictated by schoolteachers and bureaucrats. Neither result is good for religious or personal freedom.

The dispute over school prayer is one of the longest-running controversies in this area. For almost 40 years, the courts have repeatedly and definitively found school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional but its advocates just as repeatedly try to reinstate it. While their most recent attempt, misleadingly named the Religious Freedom Amendment, was defeated in 1988, and did garner significant support in Congress.

Because public school students are, by nature, young and impressionable, the courts have long recognized how carefully they must be protected from peer and official pressure. The courts realize the First Amendment's Establishment Clause means students should never be given the impression that any one faith in particular, or religion in general, is officially sanctioned or preferred.

In addition to its discriminatory effect on religious minorities, organized school prayer tells students of all faiths that religion is a legitimate function of the state. This is not what the American ideal of religious freedom is about. The authors of the Constitution specifically rejected all language that would have authorized government aid for religious institutions.

This does not mean, of course, that students are obliged to check their religious beliefs at the schoolhouse door. The myth of the "Godless classroom" is just that -- a myth. Truly voluntary religious exercises in public schools have never been found to be illegal. While prayer and other religious activity led or organized by school officials and teachers is forbidden, the courts have left ample room for student religious expression.

As long as there is no disruption of normal school activity, individual students are free to engage in prayer whenever and wherever they like. Religious clubs that are initiated and led by students may have as much access to school facilities as do all other student clubs. Students even have the right, within limits, to distribute religious material on school grounds.

This is not enough for the zealots of the religious right. Blinded to the lessons of history, they continue to try to make public education a tool of sectarian indoctrination. Their efforts may be well intentioned, but the results have been profoundly troubling.

Among recent instances are the following:

  • In Alabama, a family of Jewish children complains about their public school's promotion of Christian beliefs. They become the targets of harassment and one of them is forced to write an essay on "Why Jesus Loves Me." At a mandatory school assembly, a Christian minister condemns to hell all who do not accept Christ.

  • In Utah, a Jewish student in the public schools is forced to sing religious songs and take part in Mormon worship in choir class. When she objects, her teacher publicly humiliates her and classmates subject her to anti-Semitic harassment.

  • In California, a Jewish elementary school student in a Christmas play is given the role of a character who bows to the infant Jesus. Her parents object and the ensuing controversy splits the community.

It is not just Jewish and other minority students who suffer. When majority groups encounter resistance to their beliefs, the result is often suspicion and intolerance. And when state-imposed religious practice leads to dispute and division, everyone's educational experience is diminished.

Religion should be taught in the family and in our houses of worship. The public schools should be reserved for that which brings us together, not for matters of individual faith. Prayer is too important and too personal for government to be involved in it.



Next: Historical Background


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