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Religion in the public schools, libraries, etc.


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Separation of church and state issues:

While the author was writing this essay, he received an Email about religion in the public schools of America. It contained many errors and distortions which are shared by many Americans. The writer of the Email said that the official religion of the U.S. is Atheism, that God cannot be referred to in the classroom, but that "ministers" of Atheism are allowed to teach evolution. In reality, there is no official state religion; the existence of the Christian God can be mentioned in class, as a belief that many people share. His existence cannot be taught as a truth for the simple reason that the constitution (as currently interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court) requires a separation between religion and state. Besides, large minorities of people in the U.S. believe otherwise. Atheistic teachers do teach evolution in science class. But they are a small minority. School teachers are probably much like the general adult population -- about 75% Christian.

Religious teaching in the public schools is limited because of the first phrase of the first Amendment of the U.S. Constitution -- the establishment clause. It states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." This clause has been interpreted by the courts as requiring a wall of separation between church and state. That is, the government (and by extension, the public schools) must remain neutral on religion. As a rough rule of thumb, they may not:

  1. promote one religion or faith group over any other.
  2. promote a religiously based life over a secularly based life.
  3. promote a secularly based life over a religiously based life. 

Perhaps the most publicized aspect of this wall of separation is that the courts have ruled that mandated school prayer within the classroom is unconstitutional. If a school board prepared a prayer for its students to recite, it would not only promote religion over secularism. It would uphold a specific religion - perhaps even a specific division within a religion. For example, a prayer directed to Jesus Christ would support religion over secularism and Christianity over other religions. A prayer that also talked about salvation and the horrors of Hell would represent the beliefs of the conservative wing of Christianity. Even a generic prayer that addressed God in vague terms would be unacceptable, because some religions and ethical belief systems do not believe in the existence of a personal God; meanwhile others believe in multiple deities. Still others believe in a female deity -- a Goddess. From the students' point of view, mandated prayer would be seen as evidence that the state sponsors the beliefs and practices of a single faith group.

Meanwhile, the same Amendment protects students' freedom of religious speech. They are free to take their Bibles onboard busses, to pray in the hallways, to say grace before eating, to pray silently in the classroom, to organize Bible clubs (as long as other clubs are allowed in the school), to organize prayer meetings outside the school building, to engage in spontaneous student-led prayer at sports events, etc. 

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Teaching about religion in the public schools:

A course about religion or about the Bible can be theoretically taught in public schools without any constitutional problems, as long as the instruction is objective, inclusive, and balanced. That may well be an almost impossible goal to achieve:

bulletSome parents are not willing to have their children taught about the Bible in this way, because their children would then be exposed to beliefs that the parents disagreed with. Consider a small example: many conservative Christian parents are taught by their church that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). They might not be able to accept a course which mentioned that most theologians believe that the books were edited from the writings of four anonymous authors. 
bulletSome teachers who are devout Jews or Christians will not be able to avoid some degree of proselytizing 
bulletSome instructors might be tempted to present certain beliefs as truth.
bulletIn order to meet the first criteria above, the course must maintain neutrality towards religion. If a school board teaches about the Bible, it probably should also have courses that teach about other religious texts: the Qu'ran (Islam), the Vedas (Hinduism), The Book of Mormon (Mormon), perhaps even the Urantia Book. Liberal Christian parents would probably agree with this degree of inclusiveness; It is doubtful that conservative Christians would willingly accept it.
bulletFinally, the course must meet the second criteria of the Establishment Clause. If the school had a course on religion, it would have to avoid promoting religion over secularism. It is unclear whether a course about religions of the world would also have to include information about secularism: i.e. the beliefs of the non-religious, Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists etc. To our knowledge, this matter has never been challenged in the courts. To be safe, a school district might consider:
bulletIncorporating within the religion course beliefs of secularists, such as Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics, etc., or
bulletHaving a second course that describes non-religious approaches to life, like Humanism, Atheism, Agnosticism, etc.

Although some religious liberals might have no objection to such a course, it is again doubtful that conservative Christians would accept it.

All of the discussions about Bible courses in the public schools which we have seen on the Internet and in the media neglect to discuss many of these points. But the meaning of the First Amendment appears to be clear: no promoting of religion over secularism and no promoting of one religion over another.

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Reaching a common ground on religion in the schools:

There have been religious conflicts in the public schools since the 19th century, when Protestants and Catholics fought over which biblical translation would be used during morning prayers. Prayers in the public schools have since been declared unconstitutional, but religious conflict continues. Some parents and school officials advocate that public schools become "religion-free" zones. Others want to see their schools teach the beliefs of their particular wing of their own religion as truth.

On 1999-NOV-11, Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association announced a booklet which discusses permissible content of religious education in the public schools. It is called "The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide." The guide has been endorsed by: the American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, Association for Supervision & 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.1

These organizations cover the spectrum from conservative to very progressive, and include representative groups from the three largest religions in the U.S.: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

The guide has been criticized by Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists. She said that attempts to teach about the Bible in a constitutional manner "are fraught with legal and practical questions. We've been down this road before. It is almost impossible to use a sectarian book like the Bible in a 'fair' and 'objective' manner in public schools classrooms.  Too many religious groups and teachers will just exploit the situation and violate the rights of others when it comes to religious proselytizing." She added that public schools "already have enough problems with religious activity," and suggested that the Guide "sets up restrictions and standards that cannot be adequately enforced." 2

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The importance of religion in the curriculum:

Some argue that an individual cannot be considered fully educated unless she/he is aware of the overwhelming influence that religion has had on society. As the home page of this web site once stated, religion:

...promotes both good and evil. Historically, it has helped to abolish slavery. It has promoted  racial integration, equal rights for women, and equal rights for gays and lesbians. It has motivated individuals to create massive support services for the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the broken. Conversely, it has been used to justify slavery, racial segregation, oppression of women, discrimination against homosexuals, genocide, extermination of minorities, and other horrendous evils.

Religion drives some to dedicate their lives to help the poor and needy. (e.g. Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa.) It drives others to exterminate as many "heretics" as they can. Consider the mass murders and genocides in Bosnia, East Timor, India, Korea, Kosovo, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tibet, etc.

Religion has the capability of generating unselfish love in some people, and vicious, raw hatred in others.

Some would argue that religion has historically had such a major influence, both for good and for evil, that it must be taught in the public schools. Otherwise, the next generation is destined to be ignorant of their heritage, and to repeat the errors of the past.

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide," published by Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association, (1999). Available online at: http://www.teachaboutthebible.org/, and http://www.teachaboutthebible.org/
  2. "Florida Bible curriculum attacked: But is 'solution' still a call to teach, advance religion,?" AANEWS for 2000-JAN-23. See: http://www.atheists.org/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JAN-16
Latest update: 2006-OCT-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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