History 420 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Teaching Religion in the Schools through debate and compromise

To access the overheads for today's discussion, scroll downward. Remember, each overhead is separated by a solid line.


Goals for Today’s Discussion


Defining Religious Liberty and the Constitutional Guarantees

1. Defining religious liberty - Religious liberty includes the inalienable right to believe in any or no faith as well as the right to practice any or no religion without governmental coercion or control.

2. Guaranteeing religious liberty - The Constitution contains two guarantees of religious liberty: Article VI and the First Amendment.

Selected Appellate Court Decisions - Teaching Religion in the Schools

1940 - Cantwell v. Connecticut - In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that free exercise of religion is one of the "liberties" protected by the 14th Amendment's due process clause. Cantwell and his two sons who were Jehovah's Witnesses had been found guilty of violating the common law offense of inciting a breach of peace when they went door-to-door with books and pamphlets in a predominately Roman Catholic street. They played a record entitled "Enemies" which attacked Catholicism. They claimed they had the right to free speech and that the state law that required them to get a permit to solicit donations from people outside of their faith was unconstitutional. The Court's decision was that the Cantwell's were guaranteed the rights under the 1st and 14th amendments to share their religious message. This is the U.S. Supreme Court's first case to address religious liberty.

1940 - Minersville School District v. Gobitis - In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school district's interest in creating national unity was sufficient to require students to salute the flag.

1943 - West Virginia v. Barnette - In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Gobitis and ruled that the free speech and free exercise of religion provisions in the First Amendment guarantee the right of students to be excused from the flag salute and Pledge of Allegiance on grounds of conscience and religious liberty. This is the U.S. Supreme Court's first case to address religious liberty in the schools.

1947 - Everson v. Board of Education - In 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between Church and State.'"

1948 - McCollum v. Board of Education - In a 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the use of tax-supported property for religious instruction violated the 1st amendment's Establishment clause.

1952 - Zorach v. Clausen - In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school students could be released during the school day to religious centers located off school grounds and that such "released time" programs permissibly accommodate the religious needs of students.

1962 - Engel v. Vitale - In a 6-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a government agency like a school or government or for agents like public school employees to require students to recite prayers. Note that this does not outlaw prayer in the schools; instead, it allows students to pray alone or in groups as long as such prayers are not disruptive and do not infringe upon the rights of others. This was the first in a series of cases in which the Court used the Establishment clause to eliminate religious activities of all sorts, which had traditionally been a part of public ceremonies.

1963 - Abington Township School District v. Schempp - In a 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state-sponsored devotional Bible readings in public schools are unconstitutional. The state may not draft or conduct religious prayers in schools filled with captive audiences of children.

1968 - Epperson v. Arkansas - In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overthrew an Arkansas law forbidding the teaching of evolution, finding that it was passed for religious reasons which violates the First Amendment. They further found that the law had been based solely on the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, who felt that evolutionary theories directly contradicted the biblical account of Creation. This use of state power to prohibit the teaching of material objectionable to a particular sect ammounted to an unconstitutional Establishment of religion.

1971 - Lemon v. Kurtzman - In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that direct government assistance to parochial schools was unconstitutional because they create an excessive entanglement between a religious entity and the state. The Court used three factors - known as the Lemon Test - to determine the constitutionality of contested programs.

1972 - Wisconsin v. Yoder - In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state's interest in educating children past the 8th grade does not outweigh the religious freedom of parents. Requiring Amish and Mennonite children to attend school past the 8th Grade would substantially burden their religious freedom.

1980 - Stone v. Graham - In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state law requiring public schools to post the Ten Commandments violates the First Amendment. Because the Commandments are a sacred religious text and their posting does not have any connection to the curriculum, their posting can be only to promote certain religious views.

1985 - Wallace v. Jaffree - In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a "moment of silence" is unconstitutional when the explicit purpose and meaning of such a law is to promote prayer.

1987 - Edwards v. Aguillard - In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana statute requiring creation to be taught alongside evolution was unconstitutional. The Court held that the law was not adopted with a secular purpose, was discriminatory because it provided certain resources and guarantees to "creation scientists" which were not provided to those who taught evolution, and was intended to advance a particular religion because several state senators who had supported the bill stated that their support for the bill stemmed from their religious beliefs.

1990 - Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens - In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Access Act (1984 - requires secondary schools to allow "noncurriculum related clubs" including religious and political clubs, as long as they are student initiated and student led) does not violate the First Amendment. Allowing student religious clubs on the same basis as other student-initiated clubs is equal treatment, not school endorsement of religion.

1992 - Lee v. Weisman - In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools may not promote religious exercises either directly or through an invited guest at graduation ceremonies. Forcing students to choose between attending a graduation ceremony containing religious elements with which they disagree or avoiding the offending practice by not attending was inherently coercive and unlawful.

1993 - DeNooyer v. Livonia Public Schools - The Sixth Circuit panel held that denying students the right to complete a classroom exercise that expresses religious preference does not violate the student's rights. Because classrooms are closed forums designed not to allow the free expression of ideas, but to create an educational environment, teachers can require students to abide by express rules and goals of an assignment.

1995 - Settle v. Dickson County School Board - the Sixth Circuit Court ruled that a teacher retains control over curriculum and assignments and that students may express their religious views in class assignments and discussions - as long as their views are relevant to the subject under consideration and meet the requirements of the assignment.

1996 - Hsu v. Roslyn School District - The Second Circuit Court panel ruled that limiting leadership of a club to a particular category of people - in this case, professing Christians - if relevant to the message and purpose of the club is protected by the Equal Access Act (requires secondary schools allow "noncurriculum related clubs" including religious and political clubs, as long as they are student initiated and student led).

2000 - Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe - In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that pre-game prayers before high school football games violates the First Amendment because it communicates a government religious endorsement.

2000 - Cole v. Oroville Union High School District - the Ninth Circuit Court ruled that a public school graduation ceremony is not an open speech forum but a government ceremony. As such, the school is responsible for prohibiting speeches that proselytize or give the impression that their religious views are supported or endorsed by the school.

2001 - Good News Club, et. al. v. Milford Central School - In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school district cannot deny access to religious after school groups because it discriminates against the students and their club on the basis of their religious viewpoint. The club met afterschool, was hosted by private parties, and the facilities were made available to other outside groups.

2010 - Christian Legal Society v. Martinez - In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a law school can legally deny recognition to a Christian student group that won't let gays join. The Court rejected the Christian Legal Societyís (CLS) effort to get funding and recognition from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law. The CLS requires that voting members sign a statement of faith and regards "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle" as being inconsistent with that faith. But Hastings officials said no recognized campus groups may exclude people due to religious belief or sexual orientation. The Court voted 5-4 to uphold lower court decisions which found that the Christian group's First Amendment rights of association, free speech and free exercise were not violated by the college's decision.

Questions and Answers about Religion in the Public School Curriculum
(Adapted from Finding Common Ground, pp. 89-92)

Is it constitutional to teach about religion in public schools?

Yes, In the Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963) U.S. Supreme Court cases, the court ruled that public school education may include teaching about religion.  In the words of Associate Justice Tom Clark when writing in the Abington v. Schempp case:  “It might 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.  It certainly may be said that the Bible is worth of study for its literary and historic qualities.  Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

What does it mean that we can teach “about religion?”

The following statements distinguish between teaching about religion and religious indoctrination:

Why should we include the study of religion in our curriculum?

Because religion plays a significant role in history and society, study about religion is essential to understanding both the nation and the world.  Omission of facts bout religion can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant.  Failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices, and concepts of the various religions makes much of history, literature, art, and contemporary life unintelligible.

Study about religion is also important if students are to value religious liberty, the first freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.  Moreover, knowledge of the roles of religion in the past and present promotes cross-cultural understanding essential to democracy and world peace.

Where does the study about religion belong in the curriculum?

Wherever it naturally arises.  On the secondary level, the social studies, literature and the arts offer many opportunities for the inclusion of information about religions – their ideas and themes.  On the elementary level, natural opportunities arise in discussions of family and community life and in discussions about festivals, holidays, and different cultures.

Religion may also be taught in connection with special courses or units within an existing curriculum.  Some secondary schools offer special courses on world religions, the Bible as literature, and the religious literature of the West and the East.

To read an excellent review based on several years of research conducted on the required worlds religions course taught in Modesto, California public schools, see "Learning about World Religions in Public Schools: The impact on student attitudes and community acceptance in Modesto, California" online at http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/about.aspx?id=16863 Click on "Download Report" and it will come up in a pdf file.

Do current textbooks teach about religion?

Rarely.  Recent textbook studies conclude that the most widely used textbooks largely ignore religion in history and society.  For example, readers of high school U.S. history texts learn little or nothing about the great colonial revivals, the struggles of minority faiths, the religious motivations of immigrants, the contributions of religious groups to many social movements, major episodes of religious intolerance, and many other significant historical events.  Education without appropriate attention to major religious influences and themes is incomplete.

How does teaching about religion relate to the teaching of values?

Teaching about religion is not the same as teaching values.  The former is objective academic study while the latter involves teaching particular ethical viewpoints or standards of behavior.  There are basis moral values that are recognized by the population at large – like honesty, integrity, justice, compassion.  These values can be taught in classes through discussion, by example, and by carrying out school policies.  Public schools may teach about the various religious and nonreligious perspectives concerning many complex moral issues that confront society, but such perspectives must be presented without adopting, sponsoring, or denigrating one view over another.

How should religious holidays be treated in the classroom?

Carefully.  Religious holidays offer excellent opportunities to teach about religion in the elementary and secondary schools.  Recognition of and information about such holidays should focus on the origin, history and generally agreed-upon meaning of the observances.  If the approach is objective, neither advancing nor inhibiting religion, it can foster among students understanding and mutual respect within and beyond the local community.

Is it constitutional to teach the biblical account of creation in the public schools?

Some states have passed laws requiring that creationist theory based on the biblical account be taught in science classrooms.  The courts have found these laws to be unconstitutional on the ground that they promote a particular religious view.  The Supreme Court has acknowledged, however, that a variety of scientific theories about origins can be appropriately taught in the science classroom.  Though science instruction may not endorse or promote religious doctrine, the account of creation found in various scripture may be discussed in a religious studies class or in any course that considers religious explanations for the origin of life.

10 Tips for Starting a World Religions Curriculum

  1. Involve the community. Invite community members to review the proposed curriculum, host a meeting with local faith leaders during the curriculum's development, and tour several local houses of worship. It gives people a voice in the process and creates community buy in.
  2. Engage diverse voices. Make sure every religion represented in your area has a place at the table. Be sure to make space for atheism, too.
  3. Build trust. Build trust with different key constituencies in your community before you attempt such a curriculum. Help them feel comfortable with the educational purpose of the curriculum.
  4. Be sensitive. Religion is a touchy subject. For many people, it's directly connected to culture, language and ethnicity. Recognize and respect the multiple layers of identity at play.
  5. Get district buy-in. This cannot be done by one teacher at one school - support from the district in terms of time, money and resources is key.
  6. Training, training, training. Recognize that you can never have enough training. Provide it before the semester starts and throughout the year.
  7. Opt-in for teachers. Some teachers might not feel comfortable teaching about religion, and classes should by taught by teachers who volunteer to teach them.
  8. Communicate with parents. t the open house every year, assure parents that your job is to teach and not preach.
  9. Lay the groundwork for respect. Be clear at the beginning of the semester that if students have a comment that may come across as hurtful, they must think about it first. They must be absolutely respectful of each others opinions and beliefs in the classroom.
  10. Maintain neutrality. When teachers donít take sides, it helps students safe and free to share their own beliefs.

Source: http://www.tolerance.org/activity/10-tips-starting-world-religions-curriculum

Resources for further information: