Religion in public schools

Addressing misunderstandings about the role of religion in public schools in the United States

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Teaching about religion in schools

This graphic is from the article Religion in public schools: America is religious, but also illiterate of religion by David Ward, Deseret News, Dec. 1, 2012. An excerpt from this article:

Part of the problem is widespread misunderstanding regarding U.S. law. According to a 2010 Pew Forum survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans erroneously believe that the Constitution forbids public schools from offering a course on religion.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, said courts have ruled that schools must be neutral, but that doesn’t mean they must ignore religion. On the contrary, ignoring religion gives preferential treatment to a strictly secular worldview, he said.

Haynes, a leading expert on the issue of religious education in public schools, argues that all high school students should be required to take a world religions course. To him, it’s simply a matter of constitutional neutrality, educational necessity and civic fairness.

In his book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t,” Boston University professor Stephen Prothero wrote, “None of the classic events in American history — the Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution — can be understood without some knowledge of the religious motivations of the generals, soldiers, thinkers, politicians, and voters who made them happen.”

Haynes concurs. “For better and for worse, religious convictions play a central role in shaping events in America and throughout the world,” he wrote in Kappan magazine earlier this year. Kappan is published by Phi Delta Kappa, a professional organization for educators.

“For students to be given the impression in 12 years of public schooling that they can learn everything they need to know about almost everything, and learn nothing about religion, and be educated people, is simply a bad education, and it’s unfair,” Haynes said.

Click here to open a guide which outlines the reality behind many misunderstandings: Schools indeed are allowed to teach about religion (they just may not pick one, and indoctrinate students in that faith) and students indeed are allowed to pray (but on their own, in or with their friends: students and teachers may not force a class to listen to group prayers)

Public Schools and religious communities A First Amendment Guide

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Prayer Was Never Banned From Our Public Schools

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A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools is published by the First Amendment Center. Click here to open: A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools

Guide to religion in the public schools (1)

The guide has been endorsed by the following organizations:

American Association of School Administrators
American Federation of Teachers
American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Congress
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs
Christian Educators Association International
Christian Legal Society
Council on Islamic Education
National Association of Elementary School Principals
National Association of Evangelicals
National Association of Secondary School Principals
National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
National Council for the Social Studies
National Education Association
National PTA
National School Boards Association
Union of American Hebrew Congregations
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America

Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

Each day millions of parents from diverse religious backgrounds entrust the education of their children to the teachers in our nation’s public schools. For this reason, teachers need to be fully informed about the constitutional and educational principles for understanding the role of religion in public education. This teacher’s guide is intended to move beyond the confusion and conflict that has surrounded religion in public schools since the early days of the common school movement. For most of our history, extremes have shaped
much of the debate. On one end of the spectrum are those who advocate promotion of religion (usually their own) in school practices and policies. On the other end are those who view public schools as religion-free zones. Neither of these approaches is consistent with the guiding principles of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.

Fortunately, however, there is another alternative that is consistent with the First Amendment and broadly supported by many educational and religious groups. The core of this alternative has been best articulated in “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy,” a statement of principles issued by 24 national organizations. Principle IV states:

“Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.”

The questions and answers that follow build on this shared vision of religious liberty in public education to provide teachers with a basic understanding of the issues concerning religion in their classrooms. The advice offered is based on First Amendment principles as currently interpreted by the courts and agreed to by a wide range of religious and educational organizations. For a more in-depth examination of the issues, teachers should consult Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools
A Teacher’s Guide To Religion in the Public Schools: First Amendment Center

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The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide

Published by: The Bible Literacy Project, Inc., and The First Amendment Center

The Bible and Public Schools

Some excerpts: (click the following link for the full text)

Ending the confusion and conflict about the Bible and public schools would be good for public education and for our nation. But finding common ground will not be easy because Americans have been divided about this issue since the early days of the common school movement. “Bible wars” broke out in the 19th century between Protestants and Catholics over whose version of the Bible would be read each morning in the classroom. Lawsuits in the 1960s led to Supreme Court decisions striking down devotional Bible-reading by school officials. More recent conflicts have involved differences about the limits of student religious expression and the constitutionality of Bible courses offered in the curriculum.

Two Failed Models

If school districts are going to move from battleground to common ground on issues concerning the Bible1 in the schools, they must move beyond the extremes that often dominate the debate. On one end of the spectrum are those who advocate what might be called the “sacred public school” where one religion (theirs) is preferred in school practices and policies. Characteristic of the early history of public education, this unconstitutional approach still survives in some school districts.

In more recent decades, there are those on the other end of the spectrum who push for what looks to some like a “religion-free zone” where religion is largely ignored in public schools.

A Third Model of Fairness and Respect

The sponsors of this guide reject both of these models and offer another approach – one in which public schools neither inculcate nor inhibit religion but become places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. In this third model, public schools protect the religious-liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. And schools ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion as an important part of a complete education. This is a vision of public education that is both consistent with First Amendment principles and broadly supported by many educational and religious organizations.

The advice offered in this guide draws on this shared vision and relies on recent consensus statements about the role of religion in public schools under current law. The focus here is on the Bible because of the need to address the conflicts and confusion surrounding the Bible in the public-school curriculum. There are, of course, scriptures of other faith communities important to millions of Americans and worthy of study in a well-balanced curriculum. The constitutional and educational guidelines offered below apply to study about these scriptures as well.

Many Americans continue to hold the mistaken view that the Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s concerning prayer and devotional Bible-reading prohibited students from expressing their faith in a public school. Actually, the Court did not eliminate prayer or the Bible from public schools; it barred state-sponsored religious practices, including devotional use of the Bible by public-school officials….

….Educators widely agree that study about religion, where appropriate, is an important part of a complete education. Part of that study includes learning about the Bible in courses such as literature and history. Knowledge of biblical stories and concepts contributes to our understanding of literature, history, law, art, and contemporary society.

The Supreme Court has held that public schools may teach students about the Bible as long as such teaching is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”…

Click here to read “The Bible and Public Schools” (PDF file)

The guide has been endorsed by the following organizations:
American Association of School Administrators
American Federation of Teachers
American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Congress
Anti-Defamation League
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs
Christian Educators Association International
Christian Legal Society
Council on Islamic Education
National Association of Evangelicals
National Association of Secondary School Principals
National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
National Council for the Social Studies
National Education Association
National School Boards Association
People for the American Way Foundation
Union of American Hebrew Congregations

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National PTA (Parent-Teacher Association)

Parents are recognized as having the primary responsibility for the upbringing of their children, including education. For this reason, parents need to be fully informed about school policies and practices, including all issues concerning religion and religious liberty in public education.

The following questions and answers are intended to help parents understand the religious liberty rights of students and the appropriate role for religion in the public school curriculum. A number of recent documents represent a growing consensus among many religious and educational groups about the constitutional and educational role of religion in public schools. This pamphlet is designed to build on these agreements and to encourage communities to find common ground when they are divided

PTA: A Parent’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools

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Teaching about religion in public schools: Where do we go from here?
Sponsored by The First Amendment Center and the Pew Forum

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Abington Township v. Schempp made it clear that public schools could not engage in devotional teaching of religion, but the Court also noted that academic teaching about religion was not only constitutional, but also desirable, within these same classrooms. On the 40th anniversary of the Schempp decision, teachers, administrators, policymakers and advocates gathered near the nation’s capital to consider the progress and potential for the movement to teach about religion in our nation’s public schools.

Convened by the First Amendment Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, this conference was designed to take a close look at how religion is currently treated in the public-school curriculum and explore what should be done in the future to address the place of religious studies across the curriculum. In short, we asked: How well are public schools including study about religion? Today this question is more important than ever as the United States confronts expanding religious diversity — and an urgent need for understanding religious differences in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001

Teaching About Religion In Public Schools

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