Religion in American Public Schools



Religionin American Public Schools

Religionin American Public Schools

Thereare very few issues in the American society that have been morecontroversial that religion, especially in relation to publiceducation. There are numerous issues that have been involved in thereligious controversies in the American society. However, it would beright to argue that these controversies have been masked withmisinformation and confusion. In many case, topics revolving aroundreligion, especially in the education sector have missed the basicfacts. Nine out of ten children in the United States are educated inthe public education system. These children come from diversesocieties characterized by a variety of religious beliefs andphilosophies (Haynes &amp Thomas, 2007). The American society is oneof the most diverse societies in the world. This is reflected in thestudent population in the public education system. Therefore, it iscritical to ensure that the public education system respects thereligious beliefs and philosophies of the learners and protect theirfundamental rights.

Publicschools have the legal obligation of making policies that does notinfringe on the basic rights of individuals. Religious rights andschool policies are some of the controversial issues faced by themodern education systems, not only in the United States but also inother parts of the world. Students and other individuals in theschool vicinity have the right of association as well as right ofexpression. However, there are relevant school policies that acts asguideline and ensure that there is harmony in the school environment(Haynes &amp Thomas, 2007). Teachers, parents and students arejustified to request for a limited open forum in the school. However,it is obvious that some members of the school community may beconcerned about the formation of non academic association in theschool. This may include the establishment of religious groups whichis a very controversial issue. However, the question would be whetherthe establishment of these forums violates ethical and legalguidelines in the religious clause of the first amendment. Even incases where the establishment of such forum is not in question,whether school should offer elective courses on religions and thepedagogical guidelines of the courses is also controversial.

Thelegal guidelines to religious activities in public schools are basedon the establishment clause and free exercise clause of the firstamendment, The Equal Assess Act and relevant Supreme Court ruling.The establishment clause of the first amendment (together with thefree exercise clause) states that the “congress shall make no lawrespecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the freeexercise thereof. Therefore, the first amendment does not prohibitstudents from being engaged in religious activities in publicschools. Students have the right to engage in individual or groupreligious activities. Although it is important for the schooladministration to establish laws and regulation that are imposed onthe school community to install order and pedagogical restrictions,the rules should not be administered or structured in such as waythat they result into religious discrimination (Haynes &amp Thomas,2007). According to the Equal Access Act of 1984, all public schoolsin the United States should provide all members of the community withequal access to extra curriculum activities, includingextracurricular clubs. The act was mainly lobbied by Christian groupswho advocated for bible study clubs in public institutions. Therefore, the establishment of the forum in the school does notviolate the first amendment and is supported by the Equal Access Act.However, the according to supreme court ruling in the AbingtonTownship v. Schempp (1963)case, the school policies must pass the “secular purpose andprimary effect tests” for them to be compatible with theestablishment clause and free exercise clause of the first amendment(Haynes &amp Thomas, 2007). This means that the religious activitiesshould not be mandatory or aimed at promoting or inhibiting aparticular religion.

Thereis no doubt that the society is a public society live in areligiously pluralistic society. Therefore, formal and informaleducation should be aimed at enhancing the learners’ abilities andskills that enables them to live in a religiously diverse societywith deep differences. Thus, another controversy has been whether theelective courses can be offered in public schools and pedagogicalguidelines of the courses. These questions can be answered based onthe ruling of the Supreme Court in the AbingtonTownship v. Schempp (1963)and the Lemonv. Kurzman (1973)cases (Haynes &amp Thomas, 2007). In both cases, the Supreme Courtgives an interpretation of the first amendment in relation toreligion courses in public schools and the pedagogical guidelines. Inthe Lemonv. Kurzman (1973)case, although the court ruled against the government being entangledwith religious affairs through public education, it did not prohibitelective religious education. According to the ruling the AbingtonTownshipv. Schempp(1963) case, which was upheld by the Lemonv. Kurzman (1973)case ruling, such policies in public schools should have a secularpurpose, should not advance or inhibit a particular religious beliefor practice and should not result into entanglement of the state inreligion. This should form the basis of pedagogical guidelines in theintroduction of elective religious courses (Haynes &amp Thomas,2007).


Haynes,C. &amp Thomas, O. (2007). Findingcommon ground: a First Amendment guide to religion and public,Nashville, TN: First Amendment Center.