Religion’s Role in Public Education
The current conditions of today’s public school classrooms are not religiously inclined. Those with religious convictions often feel suppressed and “hushed.” For instance, Kafer (2002) told a story about a girl who was not allowed to pray with her friends for her school lunch (p. 41). Rather than seeing this act as a free expression of religion, her teachers apparently felt that this simple prayer would have been an infringement on the rights of others. Another example is given by Aspy and Aspy’s (1993) story of a little girl who drew a cross when asked to draw an illustration of Easter. “Allegedly, the teacher refused to accept the child's drawing on the grounds that it was unfit for the classroom” (para. 35). Yet, religion is quelled not only by teachers, but also by students who ridicule their fellow classmates for their religious beliefs and practices. As a teacher of high school social studies, Henderson (2012) came in contact with a Sikh student who felt pressured to cut his hair against his religious convictions in order to avoid ridicule from other classmates (para. 3). Overall, public school classrooms do not offer students much freedom to unashamedly adhere to religious principles or to ask questions and express opinions regarding religious topics.
However, public schools have not always had this attitude. In the past centuries, their views have changed slowly yet drastically. Passe and Willox (2009) pointed out that early American schools taught Protestant religion (p. 103). They went on to say that schools now give “multi-cultural” education, but usually side-step the religious aspects of the differing cultures (p. 104). Something seems to have slowly changed in the world’s way of thinking, creating a controversy that has been going on for years. However, to truly understand this issue, one has to know what is meant by religion. Spiro (1989) defined religion as “’[a]ny coherent framework for resolving issues of fundamental ethical and metaphysical significance’” (as cited in Aspy & Aspy, 1991, para. 3). In this context, it can be defined as all religious worldviews, beliefs, and practices, including but not exclusive to Christianity. Religious freedom, then, is the right to follow the convictions of one’s own conscience—regardless of one’s worldview. However, this freedom is subject to the wellbeing of others and to the laws of the land.
There seems to be two extreme opposite views to the question of religion in public schools. A few feel that religion should be an integrated part of the classroom, taught and required for students and teachers. Interestingly enough, the particular religion that these people promote is usually Christianity. Boston (2007) quoted one public school principal who, as a Christian, disliked the fact that freedom of expression included Buddhism, Judaism, and all other religions. “’The issue for us is about freedom of expression of Christianity,’” the principal asserted (as cited in Boston, 2007, p. 8). On the other hand, some rule that religion should be taken out of the classroom altogether. Larue (1998) expressed that “religious speculation” should be kept apart from “modern scientific investigation” in the public school classroom (para. 11). The majority of public schools seems to support the latter opinion and stays away from the subject of religion altogether. However, religion should be taught about, openly discussed, and allowed to be upheld by teachers and students alike. This practice will cause students to become more open minded, create a warm and accepting class atmosphere, and compel students to think analytically about their own and others’ opinions.
First and foremost, students can become more impartial toward the ideas of others through learning about religion. It is easy for young students to get the idea that their own opinions and lifestyles are the only standard. Learning about the different religious ideas around them can help students to realize that there is more in the world beyond their own limited spectrum. Rosenblith and Bailey (2007) said that the viewpoints and the cognitive capacities of students can be broadened from instruction in religion, resulting in “increased knowledge, understanding, and respect” (p. 99). It is interesting to note that knowledge must come before respect. Rosenblith and Bailey used the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, to illustrate this point. The attitudes of the American people toward the Muslims that arose from this incident proved Americans’ unfamiliarity with Islam (p. 99). Accordingly, Passe and Willox (2009) stated the following: “The issue of religious knowledge reached the forefront after 9/11, when Americans began to recognize how little they knew about Islam” (p. 104). Rosenblith and Bailey pointed out that after this event, people were suddenly stereotypically labeling all Muslims as “fundamentalists and terrorists.” They concluded by saying, “[R]eligious studies has the potential to eliminate harmful stereotypes and replace them with accurate information about religious groups” (p. 99-100). A better understanding of world religions would be the key to a higher esteem for people who practice those religions.
After the framework of increased knowledge of others’ views has begun to be built, then respect will begin to rise from that foundation. Jackson (2004) felt that learning about religion in school would teach students to “’interpret, reflect upon, and gain insights from different worldviews’” (as cited by Valk, 2007, p. 282). When young scholars realize that they can find the common ground between themselves and those of other views, they will be able to value and, as quoted above, “gain insight” from other religious viewpoints, rather than turning their backs completely on the adherents solely because they do not agree with them on certain points. The goal, then, is not to change students’ mindsets, but to help them to appreciate the mindsets of those around them. As Henderson (2012) remarked, “We can and should remain vigilant in protecting religious freedom, which includes … the need to make sure that people of all faiths, or no faith at all, are respected in our public schools” (para. 4). So it is clear that studying religious worldviews can give students better comprehension of, less partiality toward, and greater respect for those worldviews.
Secondly, the open-minded study and discussion of religion can create a friendly setting for students. Kafer (2002) affirmed that “[c]reating a space for religious expression … can improve the school environment” (p. 47). Instead of causing arguments, tension, and hostility, as one might expect, Hunter (2000) contended that in spite of students’ cherished and varied opinions, allowing a broad education which includes religion would nonetheless inspire them to collaborate with each other (as cited in Valk, 2007, p. 281). When children feel that their opinions and views can be voiced without being ridiculed, they will be less likely to scorn the ideas of others; they will feel understood and will subsequently try to understand those who hold different opinions than they do. Thus, a classroom where religion is allowed will have a warm, friendly atmosphere as children will learn to look beyond the disagreements and will cultivate, in Kafer’s words, “greater appreciation for the diverse religious heritage” of fellow classmates (p. 48).
Learning to work with fellow classmates will prepare children for the adult reality of working side-by-side with many diverse-minded co-workers, employers, in-laws, and others. In an introduction to an article written by Rosenblith and Bailey (2007), it was stated that since schoolchildren are part of a comprehensive society and government, they must acquire abilities, means, and information to operate on this “religiously diverse” planet, regardless if including discussion of religion in the classroom could be controversial (p. 93). Along the same line, the National Council for the Social Studies Curriculum Standards (n.d.) stated, "’Knowledge about religions … is absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of diversity’" (as cited in Kafer, 2002, p. 43). The public schools are excellent training grounds to begin this preparation. Accordingly, Valk (2007) voiced that instructing individuals to surpass personal independence and strive for dedication to others and mutual objectives is the true purpose of schooling (p. 279). What better place to educate young minds in the lessons of self-forgetfulness and commitment to group goals than in the public school classroom, which is open to, as Lynn (n.d.) pointed out, students whose religious and ethical backgrounds are diverse (as cited in Boston, 2007, p. 10). Children will learn to not let differences create dissension through the study of the varieties of religious worldviews.
Lastly, learning about religion will teach students to carefully analyze their own and others’ opinions. As Noddings (n.d.) said, allowing classroom discussions about religious topics will actually help students “’gather evidence, assess argument, discriminate among authorities, construct counterarguments, and challenge claims’” (as cited in Rosenblith & Bailey, 2007, p. 100). It would be well to notice the use of the word analyze in the former sentence. Most are more familiar with the phrase critical thinking than analytical thinking. While critical thinking can give the connotation of faultfinding, judgmental thinking, analytical thinking involves positive, rather than negative, evaluations and investigations. In other words, rather than ridiculing those who hold different religious views, students will learn to make their own personal assessments based on the facts and knowledge they gain.
However, this analytical thinking does not have to entail the sacrifice of the individual’s values and the acceptance of another’s way of thinking. On the contrary, human beings must learn to think and reason for themselves. Valk (2007) conceded this point by saying that rather than causing children to be confused about what to think, learning about other “religious and secular” views motivates students to strengthen their own mentalities and to know their own priorities (p. 283, emphasis added). When students’ religious opinions are allowed to be discussed and studied in school, the results will include not only a gain in knowledge, but also an increased ability to formulate carefully-considered beliefs rather than blindly-accepted views.
One of the most common arguments against allowing religious discussion in public schools is that to do so would be illegal. Aspy and Aspy (1991) noted the complications involving “the doctrine of separation of church and state” by saying, “Currently, there is evidence to support the contention that our rulings have caused teachers nearly to cease to discuss religion with their students” (para. 2). As government schools, public schools are also subject to the government’s laws. The United States Department of Education (2003) stated in a guide on public school prayer that the First Amendment is interpreted as not only restraining the government from initiating religion but also from interfering with or prohibiting private “religious expression and activities” (para. 9). This stipulation bans teachers from leading their classrooms in prayer to begin the school day, but also does not allow a teacher to restrict a student’s personal prayer. The American Civil Liberties Union (2003) explained more clearly that if students do not disrupt the class or try to compel others to pray with them, they have a right to pray at any time (p. 2). The American Civil Liberties Union also explained that while it is unconstitutional for public schools to teach religion, they may teach about how religion has affected the different subjects of study. The main point is that they cannot “promote religious beliefs or practices as part of the curriculum” (p. 1). Thus it is clear that public schools are allowed to teach about and hold impartial discussions about various aspects of religion in the classroom.
However, it appears that many schools are not taking full advantage of the freedom of religion that is granted to them. When Nord (1994), the vice president of the National Council on Religion and Public Education, did an analysis of public school textbooks, he found that even subjects such as science and economics that have religious history and influence were “conspicuously silent on the subject of religion” (para. 6). Not only are textbooks silent, but teachers and students also refrain from religious conversation. Aspy and Aspy (1991), in a 25-year study of around 200,000 hours of education, discovered that “[n]one of the classes involved in that enormous sample contained a single discussion that could be classified as relating directly to religious matters” (para. 8). This silence in such an important area limits the comprehensiveness of students’ education. Kafer (2002) said that “[a]n understanding of the role of religion in history, art, and current events is necessary for a wellrounded [sic] education” (p. 48). Public educators should become familiar with the current legal stipulations around religious education, and, while still abiding within the laws of each state, they should allow the cultivation of religious awareness to benefit their classrooms.
Religion is an essential part of the public school classroom. If schools will only make the most of the opportunities they have for studying and discussing religious topics, they will find that its presence will provide a better learning atmosphere for students as well as teachers. However, if public schools continue to ignore and even repress—failing to give students the religious history and background of certain topics—they will be showing hostility, and not neutrality, toward religion. Nord (1994) put it this way: “Consider this analogy: Would ignoring African-Americans or women in history texts show hostility, or be merely neutral?” (para. 11). Similarly, Aspy and Aspy (1991) stated, “If neutrality in religion is truly to be achieved in public schools, then more emphasis must be placed on providing nonbiased instruction on comparative religions and other similar topics” (para. 1). America’s schools should give religion a more prominent role in the public school classroom.
American Civil Liberties Union. (2003, July). Your right to religious freedom. Ask Sybil Liberty.
Retrieved October 4, 2012, from http://www.aclu.org/religion-belief/your-right-religious-freedom. This webpage talks more about specific case scenarios and the answers questions that could arise from those situations regarding religious freedom in school. The American Civil Liberties Union is a United States’ organization that promotes the legal rights of the American people.
Aspy, D. N., & Aspy, C. B. (1991). Religion in public schools. Counseling & Values, 36(1), 55.
Retrieved November 25th, 2012, from Academic Search Premier. The Aspys evaluate the position taken by Spiro (1989) that religious discussion and education should take place in public school. C. Aspy is the Associate Professor of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, and D. Aspy is a consultant on education in Oklahoma as well as the founder and director of the Center for the Systematic Study of Values and Virtues.
Aspy, C. B., & Aspy, D. N. (1993). Why religion should be an integral part of public school.
Counseling & Values, 37(3), 149. Retrieved October 31st, 2012, from Academic Search Premier. The Aspys state their views that religion should be put back into public education for historical and psychological reasons. C. Aspy is the Associate Professor of Family & Preventive Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, and D. Aspy is a consultant on education in Oklahoma as well as the founder and director of the Center for the Systematic Study of Values and Virtues.
Boston, R. (2009), Prayers, preaching & public schools: Religious right activists use wide variety
of tactics to evangelize in the classroom. Church & State, 62, 7-10. Retrieved December 5th, 2012, from Academic Search Premier. Boston gives many examples of ways that public school leaders will try to promote their own religion in their school. Boston is the Assistant Director of Communications of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that promotes the constitutional separation of church and state.
Henderson, S. (2012). Respecting all Faiths. ACLU. Retrieved October 4, 2012, from
http://www.aclu.org/blog/religion-belief/respecting-all-faiths-our-public-schools. Henderson’s plea is that all faiths should be respected in the public school classroom. He is an Education professor at Fuman University and has also taught high school social studies.
Kafer, K. (2002). How to teach religion in public school. In T. Head (Ed.), Religion and Education
(pp. 41-48). Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press. This author feels that religion should be taught about more in public school. Kafer is an analyst of senior education policies at the Heritage Foundation and has also served as Republican congressmen McIntosh’s and Schaffer’s aide.
Larue, G. A. (1998). Science, Religion and Public School Education. Humanist, 58(3), 41-42.
Retrieved September 13th, 2012, from Proquest Research Library. Larue believes that religion should be kept completely separate from science in public school where young minds are being molded. He is a biblical history and archaeology scholar and professor at Southern California University. He is also the Scientific Investigation of Religion committee’s chair.
Nord, W. A. (1994). Religion, the First Amendment, and public education. BYU Journal Of Public
Law, 8(2), 439. doi: 10.1080/01416200701479661. Nord feels that religion is being suppressed in public school, and to teach about it in class is a constitutional privilege that would reestablish balance and neutrality. He is National Council on Religion and Public Education’s vice president.Passe, J., & Willox, L. (2009). Teaching religion in America's public schools: A necessary
disruption. Social Studies, 100(3), 102-106. Retrieved October 11th, 2012, from Academic Search Premier. These authors take the position that teaching about religion in school, no matter the difficulties, is vital to maintain the religious acceptance that has been a part of our country’s democratic republic for centuries. Passe is a professor in the Department of Reading and Elementary Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Willox is a graduate student in the Department of Culture, Curriculum, and Change at the same university.
Rosenblith, S., & Bailey, B. (2007). Comprehensive religious studies in public education:
Educating for a religiously literate society. Educational Studies, 42(2), 93-111. doi: 10.1080/00131940701513151. These women say that public schools need to prepare religiously literate students by using a curriculum that involves studying religious subjects that will boost their knowledge of all religions and help them to thinking critically about each. Rosenblith is department chair of teacher education at Clemson University, and Bailey is professor of education at the same school.
United States Department of Education. (2003, February). Guidance on constitutionally
protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. USDE. Retrieved October 4, 2012, from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/religionandschools/prayer_guidance.html. This source gives guidelines for the constitutionality and the legality of school prayer. The Department of Education is a branch of the U.S. federal government.
Valk, J. (2007). Plural public schooling: Religion, worldviews and moral education. British Journal
Of Religious Education, 29(3), 273-285. doi: 10.1080/01416200701479661. Valk believes that in a society with many different perspectives, public schools should increase students' understandings of worldviews in general, while deepening their own in particular. He is Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at Renaissance College University.