Few issues can spark more emotion and confusion than the role of religion in public schools. As Charles C. Haynes recently noted, “schools still struggle to get it right.” Here at CPE, we see evidence in the fact that, nine years after it was first published, our paper on the topic is still consistently among our top downloaded reports.
Edwin C. Darden, a lawyer and the author of the CPE paper, attributes the confusion to “the clashing and equally forceful commands contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” There is the right of students and staff to “freely exercise” their faith – a guarantee that does not go away when individuals enter the school door. At the same time, the First Amendment prohibits the government and its institutions – including public schools – from “establishing” religion. Simply, schools must respect the religious rights of individual students and staff but do so while not appearing to endorse or favor any particular religion or even religion itself.
Sometimes the push and pull between these clauses leads to conflicts that eventually require the courts’ judgment to resolve. Haynes argues that many of these cases did not need to get that far. He writes, “What’s striking about these conflicts — and others like them across the country — is that far too many school officials are violating settled law. Either they don’t know the law or, worse yet, they simply choose to ignore it.” I think there is a lot of truth in what Haynes says. But there are also some situations where the lines are not all that clear between what is and is not allowed in schools, leaving even the most conscientious school leaders somewhat baffled.
Under the Establishment Clause, schools may teach about religion, which has an academic, secular purpose, but they must not cross the line to proselytizing or promoting religion. Darden gives the example of a school choir that sings songs of praise as part of its repertoire. He explains, “While the music originates from church, the choir is learning principles of performance, vocal control, and other artistic concepts by participating. The words of faith are viewed as secondary.” This, he argues, is an allowable school practice. But the distinction can get complicated.
A recent case in Laurens County, Georgia, also involves a song of faith, but some are questioning whether its purpose is truly secular. According to a news report, the West Laurens High School band has a decades-long tradition of playing “Amazing Grace” before football games followed by a moment of silence. Many in the crowd use the moment to recite the Lord’s Prayer together.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a formal request to the school to stop the prayer and song, and at this writing, the school board’s decision is pending. The case is far from clear-cut. The song “Amazing Grace” itself has a long history in the U.S. and could, therefore, fit comfortably in the educational, secular bucket. The individuals in the crowd also have a right to pray. But by following a school band’s performance of a song of faith with a moment of silence whose purpose is reflection or prayer, the school may be crossing the line from the secular to non-secular, and this could be a case of what the courts call “entanglement.” As Darden puts the question, “Does the government involvement with a religious activity stretch so deep that it is indistinguishable from the religious nature itself?” If so, then the practice would be judged unconstitutional.
These questions are confounded when community opinion and local tradition enter the fray. Little wonder, then, that many schools take the easy way out and essentially declare the school building a no-religion zone. But this is not a solution and can lead to other problems. Haynes cites the case of a Nevada school that refused to allow a sixth-grade girl to use a Bible verse as part of an assignment called “All About Me,” no doubt out of the teacher’s concern about allowing religion in the classroom but in clear violation of the child’s right to free expression. Religion avoidance also leaves gaps in children’s academic preparation. How can they understand history without understanding the role religions played in the political and social development of movements and nations? As an English major, I can’t imagine how to even read a large body of the world’s literature without some basic understanding of its religious context and metaphors.
The fear of religious controversy also affects the teaching of secular content that some faiths take exception to. This is especially true in science. The Fordham Institute found that most state science standards gave short shrift to the study of evolution, and that even in states that address this central biological concept, the mention of human evolution is “conspicuously missing.”
Haynes calls for in-service workshops for educators and administrators on “how to apply the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.” I would go further. I suggest that pre-service teacher and principal preparation require First Amendment training. And that all school leaders, including school boards, be given opportunities to better understand how to allow religion in the school that respects individuals’ rights while remaining neutral, as a public institution must.