The Role of Religion in Public Education

A Policy Statement adopted by The House of Delegates of the North Carolina Council of Churches, May 7, 1998


Disagreements about the proper role of religion in public schools divide local communities and fuel national controversies.  Across North Carolina and the United States battles are being fought over school prayer, the celebration of religious holidays, sex education, Bible courses, evolution and creationism. The voucher movement is fueled, in large part, by the opposition of religious conservatives to public education.  Many members of Congress are pressing for a constitutional amendment that would permit organized prayer in public schools.

Not surprisingly, the result of these battles has been suspicion, hostility and, in many places, bitter school board elections and lawsuits.  All too often, public opinion has been polarized as a result of overly simplistic journalism and, as special interest groups demonize their opponents, to raise money for their electoral and legal battles.

The New Consensus

It may be surprising that in the midst of our “culture wars” a broad consensus now exists at the national level regarding the role of religion in public education – though word of this consensus has yet to reach many communities, and the principles that have shaped it are not widely appreciated.

This consensus is grounded in court rulings, the Williamsburg Charter, and a number of documents that have been endorsed by a wide range of national religious and educational organizations (including the National Council of Churches).  This consensus was affirmed by President Clinton in his July, 1995, memorandum on religion and public education.

The Religious Liberty Clauses

At the most fundamental level, the principles underlying this consensus affirm the importance of religious liberty in America.

Historically our commitment has been grounded in the religion clauses of the First Amendment.  For some time, the Supreme Court interpreted the Free Exercise Clause to mean that government — and, therefore, public schools — may not burden a citizen’s (or student’s) free exercise of religion unless it has a “compelling” reason for doing so.  The mere existence of a law or a school policy wasn’t sufficient; there must also be what a court would find to be a compelling reason for requiring citizens oar students to obey that law or policy.  This was a high standard.

In 1990, the Supreme Court rejected its own interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause.  In response, Congress passed (by nearly unanimous votes) the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which restored through statutory law, the pre-1990 protection for religious liberty.  Virtually all major religious and civil liberties groups in America supported the RFRA.  In July of 1997, the Supreme Court ruled the RFRA unconstitutional.

Because of the potential for violations of students’ religious liberty in public schools, we strongly support legislation that would do in North Carolina what the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was intended to do nationally.  Such a law would enact the existing consensus regarding religious liberty in America.

As the courts have interpreted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, government-and, therefore, public schools-must remain neutral in maters of religion.  Public schools may neither practice nor promote religion.  (This is, of course, one way of protecting the religious liberty of members of minority religions.)  So, for example, there may not be official school prayers.  This is part of the consensus.  What is not debated-and is not yet a part of the consensus—is whether “student-initiated” prayer at official school activities is constitutional.  The Supreme Court has not yet ruled, and the lower courts disagree. Of course, the court has never banned (nondisruptive) student prayer in public schools.

It is tremendously important to realized, as President Clinton put it in his address, that public schools are not “religion-free zones.”  Even in the absence of the RFRA, schools can and should, within broad limits, accommodate the free exercise rights of children to practice their religion and be exempted from school activities that burden their consciences.  Equally important, the neutrality required of schools by the Establishment Clause does not prohibit teaching about religion.

Religion and the Curriculum

Some educators believe that it is unconstitutional to teach students about religion (though no Supreme Court justice has ever taken this position).  Others fear that including religion in the curriculum will be prohibitively controversial. Many teachers do not feel competent to teach about religion in public schools.

In a statement of the New Consensus entitles Religion and the Public School Curriculum: Questions and Answers, seventeen national organizations (including the American Jewish Congress, the Islamic Society of America, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, and the major national education organizations) have agreed about he importance of including religion in the curriculum, and how to teach about it.

Because religion plays significant roles in history and society, study about religion is essential to understanding both the national and the world. Omission of facts about religion can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant.  Failure to understand event he basic symbols, practices, and concepts of the various religions make 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 for religion in the past and present promotes cross-cultural understanding essential to democracy and world peace.

And how should students be taught about religion?

  • The school may sponsor study about religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion.
  • The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.  The school may educate about all religion, but may not promote or denigrate any religion.
  • That is, students must be taught neutrally.

The Supreme Court has been clear in requiring two particular kinds of neutrality:  neutrality among religions (the state cannot favor one religion over another); and neutrality between religion and non-religion.  Neutrality is, of course, a two-edged sword, as the Court has acknowledge; just as the state may not promote religion, so it may not denigrate or inhibit it.

We are deeply concerned about the role of religion in the curriculum on both educational and constitutional grounds.

A number of studies have made it clear that religion has been left out of textbooks and the curriculum to the point that children receive a decidedly distorted view of our history and culture.  While concern about the absence of religion from textbooks and the curriculum has almost always been expressed by religious conservatives, members of the mainline and liberal traditions also have a stake in ensuring that students learn about religion.

It can be argued that by leaving religion out of textbooks and the curriculum, public education marginalizes religion in the minds of students and contributes to the growing secularization of our culture.  An education that leaves religion out of the curriculum is parochial, even discriminatory  It may also violate at least the spirit of the Establishment Clause.  There is now broad agreement that ignoring black history and women’s literature, as the curriculum historically did, was not neutral, but evident of discrimination.  Similarly, to ignore religious ways of thinking about justice and morality, history and nature, may also be evidence of discrimination and violate the neutrality required by the First Amendment.

In 1989, the North Carolina State Board of Education amended the Standard Course of Study (North Carolina’s official state curriculum) to require some study of religion in social studies classes at all grade levels, K-11. However, the effect of this reform has been negligible for textbooks still include little about religion, teachers are still not prepared to teach about it, a great deal of confusion continues to exist about its legal appropriateness, and teachers and administrators still fear controversy.  Virtually no funding was appropriated to improve the situation. Moreover, the State Board addressed only the social studies curriculum, leaving most areas of the curriculum out of the discussion.

The Importance of These Issues

Like most mainline religious organizations, the North Carolina Council of Churches has focused little attention on the role of religion in public education.  We believe that it is extremely important that the Council direct greater attention to this area of conflict in our culture wars.

Too much of the public debate over religion and public education has been dangerously polarized:  moderating voices are necessary. If public education is to survive, schools must be built on common ground:  we must find principles on which we can agree.  There is good reason to believe the national consensus provides those principles.  If we can agree on these principles, if we can find common ground, much controversy can be avoided.

There is danger that public education will not survive, at least in good health, for this is a real possibility that the Supreme Court will uphold school vouchers; if this happens there will be tremendous pressure on legislatures to provide funding for religious schools—and, inevitably, take funding from public schools. Much of the support for vouchers comes from religious parents who believe, sometimes correctly, that public education is insensitive or even hostile to their religion.

We believe that by ignoring religious ideas in textbooks and the curriculum, public education plays a major role in marginalizing religion in our intellectual life and secularizing our culture. This should be as much a concern in the mainline denominations as it is among religious conservatives.  We believe, however, that taking religion seriously in the curriculum should not be seen simply as a matter of special pleading on the part of religious groups; it is required by a good education.

We are particularly concerned that the current emphasis in education on technology, computers, economics, and vocationalism can, if not moderated, exacerbate the superficiality and spiritual vacuity of modern culture, distracting students, their parents, and educators from those deeper moral and spiritual domains of life that a good education must address.

Finally, it is vitally important in the light of our culture wars, to affirm the centrality of religious liberty to our understanding of America and public education.  According to the Williamsburg Charter, the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment  were “a momentous decision, the most important political decision for religious liberty and public justice in history.”  As a result, the charter continues, we have “neither a naked public square where all religion is excluded, nor a sacred public square with any religion established or semi-established. The result, rather is a civil public square in which citizens of all religious faiths, or none, engage one another in continuing democratic discourse.”

And so it should be with public education.  Public schools cannot establish or practice religion; neither, however, can they exclude it from the discussion. Public education cannot favor the religion of the majority over those of minorities; neither can it endorse secular over religious ways of thinking and acting.  Public schools are part of the civic public square, built on common ground, places where students can learn to live with our deepest differences – and learn about those religious traditions that historically have provided people with the deepest sources of meaning in their lives.

Recommendations for Action

Given the importance of these issues, particularly to those of us in religious communities, given the level of misunderstanding that exists; and give the national consensus that provides principles that define common ground; we recommend that:

The North Carolina Council of Churches should endorse the positions taken in the consensus documents already endorsed by the National Council of Churches (in appendices 2 and 5) by affirming: the importance of religious liberty for all Americans; that public schools may neither promote nor inhibit religion: that the study of religion is essential to a good education; and that religion must be taught neutrally (rather than in a sectarian way, or as a matter of indoctrination or proselytizing).

The North Carolina Council of Churches should cooperate in replicating at the state level the documents of the New Consensus, joining with other state organizations in articulating guidelines that will address the role of religion in North Carolina’s public schools.

The North Carolina Council of Churches should help to educate clergy about these issues and encourage congregational discussion of them.  For example, it could prepare a packet of materials that might be used for Sunday School or Adult Education classes (to include excerpts form key Supreme Court rulings, the Williamsburg Charter, the major consensus documents, the Report to the North Carolina State Board of Education from the Task Force on Religion and Social Studies, and articles that address from different perspectives the issues on which we continue to disagree).

The North Carolina Council of Churches should encourage clergy and members of local congregations to make its position (and the consensus of which it is a part) more widely known and appreciated in their communities, especially among educators, encouraging them to develop guidelines for their schools that reflect the principles of the New Consensus.  Unless good policies are in place, misunderstanding will continue and teachers will not feel safe to address religion in the classroom.   With the cooperation of a supportive local school system, the North Carolina Council of Churches might consider a pilot project to show how reasonable policies and a strong curriculum might be put into place.

Finally, the North Carolina Council of Churches should support legislation in North Carolina that would protect religious liberty in the wake of the Supreme Court’s RFRA decision.

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