History 420 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Teaching Religion in the Schools

Stack of religious books

Introduction: Today we begin the fourth and final unit of our class - Understanding the controversy and debate about historical content. One of the most controversial of all topics to teach is religion - and many teachers either do not teach anything about religion for fear that what they might teach is not constitutionally protected, or because they fear they will not get support from parents and/or administrators for teaching religion. Today we have a great deal of confusion about the role of religion in our public life.

Increasingly, some Americans believe that both viewpoints are wrong and that there is a special role for religion in our society- and that role belongs to the educators of this nation. They believe that we must teach about religion and in so doing, we are constitutionally protected. And in a recent study conducted by the Bible Literacy Project, a diverse sample of high school English teachers in 10 states reported that 40 out of 41 teachers said Bible knowledge confers a distinct educational advantage on students. Further, 90 percent of the surveyed high school English teachers said it was important for both college-bound and "regular" students to be biblically literate. An Illinois teacher stated: "I think from the standpoint of academic success, it is imperative that college-bound students be literate. For the others, I think it's important for them to understand their own culture, just to be well-grounded citizens of the United States - to know where the institutions and ideas come from." (From the "Executive Summary," Bible Literacy Report: What do American teens need to know and what do they know?

Discussion Goals:

  1. To define religious liberty and discuss how it is constitutionally guaranteed
  2. To raise and answer various questions about teaching religion in the schools
  3. To review some selected appellate court decisions related to teaching religion in the schools.
  4. To examine 10 tips for how to begin a world religion curriculum.

Required for this discussion:


Discussion Goal #1: To define Religious Liberty and the Constitutional Guarantees

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. Constitutional guarantees of religious liberty are found in two specific places: Article VI and the First Amendment.

Article VI concludes: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." All public offices in the federal government are open to people of all faiths or no faith. This was not extended to all the states until the Gitlow v. New York case in 1925 when the Court ruled that the 14th Amendment made the First Amendment applicable to the states. However, this was not applied to all the states until 1961 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Maryland that had required "a declaration of belief in God" for office holders

The First Amendment begins with the clause "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." thus guaranteeing that the federal and state governments cannot establish a particular religion or religion in general - the Establishment Clause and the free exercise of religion.

So, the bottom line is that the Constitution is clear that every person can believe anything he or she wants. It is also clear about the practice of religion. The state can limit a person's practice of religion when the state can demonstrate a compelling interest to interfere with religious practice. The court must determine whether the person has a claim involving sincere religious belief and whether government action is a substantial burden on the person's ability to act on that belief. If these are established, the government must then prove it is acting on behalf of a "compelling state interest" and it has pursued that interest in a way that is least restrictive or burdensome to religion. (Sherbert Test - Sherbert v. Verner U.S. Supreme Court Case in 1963.)


Discussion Goal #2: To raise and answer various questions about teaching religion in the schools

While it is clear that Americans are religious, it is also clear that we are famously illiterate about religion - especially non-Christian religions. According to Pew Research poll taken in 2010, only about half of Americans know, that the Chart of poll results of what teachers know about religion in schoolsQuran is the holy book of Islam or that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Further, nearly two-thirds of Americans mistakenly believe that the Constitution forbids public schools from offering a course on religion. According to Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, and Jennie Sweeney who teaches a world history course in Modesto, California, " ... four fears make it difficult for public schools to implement a world religions course.

So, how can we overcome our fear? Through education, of course. Below are the most important questions related to teaching religion in the schools - questions that teachers should be asking with answers that they should be discussing

Questions tabout teaching religion in the schools. (Adapted from Finding Common Ground, pp. 89-92).


Discussion Goal #3: To review some selected appellate court decisions related to teaching religion in the schools

The chronology we are going to examine includes a selective list of U.S. Supreme Court cases and other federal court cases that have shaped the nature of how we teach religion in our schools. From 1940 to 2010 as shown in below, the Supreme Court and other federal courts have made many rulings about 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 Society’s (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.


Discussion Goal #4: To examine 10 Tips for Starting a World Religions Curriculum

Stack of books on religion

  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. At 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 don't 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