The subject of religion is controversial enough without mixing the phrase ‘public schools’ into the conversation. Those of a conservative Christian, fundamentalist ideology would have the Bible being taught in all schools as a viable historical textbook while also espousing its philosophical teachings and allowing for mandatory group prayers in the classroom leading ultimately to the indoctrination of most students. They point to the words and supposed intentions of the Founding Fathers as a basis for their claim. These same people generally bristle when the concept of teaching the history and philosophy of all world religions is mentioned. Those of a more liberal approach strictly adhere to the principle laid down in the Constitution for the separation of church and state. They believe it unlawful for schools to promote any one religion but do want the teaching of all religions as a part of the curriculum.
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The argument the religious community offers supporting the insertion of Christianity into the school system is that this country was formed upon religious principles. For example, on September 17, 1796, George Washington said, “It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible” (Evans, 2005). The third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in1781, “God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God?” (Evans, 2005). Jefferson, a well-recognized liberal thinker, as well as the entirety of the Founding Fathers, was confident that the U.S. existed only because of the intervention of a divine being, God. They would have fully supported prayer and other Christian teachings in public schools.
The Constitution allows for activities involving religion to be practiced in public schools though teachers and administrators are largely unaware of the laws about the issue. Because of this lack of knowledge, activities such as prayer are banned outright to ensure the schools are not violating the law. “Teachers pull back completely from talking about religion. It’s on the edge, just not a safe topic” (Ruenzel, 1996). Students are hardly restricted by law to express their religion in schools. They are free to express their religious convictions in many forms such as in their homework, artwork, and reports. These expressions are protected by the Constitution. “Teachers may not reject or correct [students’] submissions simply because they include a religious symbol or address religious themes” (“Religion in Public Schools”, 1995).
According to rhetoric by fundamentalist Christians, God has been removed from schools and is unwelcome in an increasingly secular society and this will ultimately lead to the further destruction of morality in children thus decay the societal structure. They argue that public schools must take the lead in introducing Christianity as a moral compass to students so that this does not happen. This reasoning is flawed on many levels not the least of which is the postulation that the concept of God has been disallowed in schools. Students may dispense religious materials and attempt to persuade classmates to their religious point of view in much the same way they might speak of political viewpoints. Public school students are free to form clubs of a religious nature and must be allowed to hold meetings on school grounds. (“Religion in Schools”, 1995). The laws have found a balance between freedom of religion and freedom from religion within public schools. If such religious observances as prayer were mandatory, many would feel excluded and others compelled to follow without question. (Eck, 2001).
Schools should strive to be inclusive thus encouraging tolerance and understanding in a world that is already too divided. The globalization of peoples and further immigration is a reality. If the U.S. is to thrive as a true democracy, the school system can not teach just one religion while ignoring other cultures.
- Eck, D.L. A New Religious America. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001.
- Evans, Laura. “Pro and Con Arguments about Prayers in Public Schools.” Googobits. (2005).
- “Religion in Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law.” American Civil Liberties Union. (1995). Web.
- Ruenzel, D. “Revival.” Education Week. (1996). Web.