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
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