August 31, 2002
By Krista Kafer
Earlier this year, a kindergartner named Kayla was told she
couldn't pray with her friends during lunch. Her family filed suit
against her New York school district, and a federal judge ordered
the school to allow the girl to pray while the trial proceeds.
This situation probably never would have arisen if school
officials had been properly cognizant of a string of Supreme Court
decisions in recent decades that have clarified students' rights
and responsibilities under the law regarding religious exercise and
free speech. Ignorance of these decisions has led to school
policies, as in Kayla's case, that chill legal religious practice
and that cold-shoulder the legitimate and legal teaching about
religion in such subjects as social studies, literature, history,
According to the Constitution, the American people are
guaranteed the right to practice religion free from government
intervention. But interpreting the First Amendment clause "Congress
shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof" has not been easy,
particularly pertaining to public schools. Nonetheless, the High
Court has said, generally speaking, that voluntary student
expression and the study of religion are protected but
proselytizing and school-sanctioned or teacher-led prayers are
The justices have recognized students' First Amendment rights to
religious expression and to receive instruction about religion and
its role in history, philosophy, and the arts. Congress has voted
to enforce--and the Court has affirmed--the right of student
religious groups to receive the same access and treatment as other
groups. These distinctions are well articulated in a 1995 statement
of principles by the National Education Association (NEA), the
country's largest teachers union, the Christian Coalition, and 22
other educational associations and religious groups.
"Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion," the
document says. "They must be places where religion and religious
conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools
uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty
rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate
fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about
religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete
While student religious expression and academic instruction
about religion are constitutional, school policies vary in the
degree to which they are allowed in practice. Some schools provide
an open, balanced environment in which students can learn about
religions and express their religious beliefs. Other school
policies have not been consistent with the law.
Thus, it is essential for educators, administrators, parents,
and students to understand their rights and responsibilities under
the law and to work together to create a school environment that is
both consistent with the Constitution and educationally beneficial
for all children.
Teaching About Religion
Religion has played a significant part in history and the arts
and continues to do so in the world today. Thus, a wide spectrum of
experts contends that religion belongs in a well-rounded
curriculum. They say it is essential to understanding the various
academic disciplines and developing cross-cultural sensitivity. For
example, the late Justice William Brennan, in a concurring opinion
in Abington v. Schempp, stated that "it would be impossible to
teach meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences or the
humanities without some mention of religion."
Many educator groups concur. NEA Resolution E-7 says, "The
National Education Association believes that educational materials
should accurately portray the influence of religion in our nation
and throughout the world." The National Council for the Social
Studies Curriculum Standards declares: "Knowledge about religions
is not only a characteristic of an educated person but is
absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of
diversity. Knowledge of religious differences and the role of
religion in the contemporary world can help promote understanding
and alleviate prejudice."
The Modesto, California, public school district offers a strong
example of how schools can teach about religion. When the district
launched a ninth-grade comparative religions class, it ensured that
the teachers were well prepared. They worked to give teachers a
solid understanding of First Amendment issues and content. Teachers
attended workshops that included notable scholars. The district
understood the importance of the topic and ensured that it would be
constitutional and enriching for students. Many states have
established standards recommending the teaching of religion in
social studies, the arts, and literature. California, for example,
requires teaching about religions in its History-Social Science
Framework. Additionally, the California County Superintendents
Educational Services Association and the First Amendment Center
sponsor a statewide program called the California 3Rs Project,
which conducts seminars, forums, and workshops on teaching about
religions and student religious liberties. The project supports
constitutional and educationally beneficial practices and promotes
the "three Rs": rights, responsibilities, and respect in
California's diverse school environments. Several other states have
initiated 3Rs projects as well.
Religion Teaching's Constitutionality
In California, teachers may teach about the role of religion in
history, its artistic influence, significant events, basic tenets,
and important figures. The same court case that denied
state-sponsored school prayer affirmed instruction about religion.
As outlined in Associate Justice Tom Clark's opinion in Abington v.
Schempp: "It might well be said that one's education is not
complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of
religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.
It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its
literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here
indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when
presented objectively as part of a secular program of education,
may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."
Permissible instruction includes such subjects as the history of
religion, the role of religion in U.S. or world history,
comparative religion, sacred texts, including the Bible as
literature, and the study of sacred music
Expressions of faith have been a common part of our national
heritage whereas state-sponsored advocacy of a particular religion
has been ruled unconstitutional. and art. The instructional
approach must be academic rather than devotional. It should neither
denigrate nor promote beliefs or practices. The goal should be to
teach knowledge and understanding about religions without favoring
any particular faith. Instruction can include a study of central
beliefs, symbols, prominent figures, and events. Students should be
able to discuss their beliefs in an atmosphere free of denigration.
If a student asks a teacher about his or her religious beliefs, it
is permissible to give a brief answer; however, such a moment
should not be used to proselytize for or against religion.
Teachers may expose students to primary sources. When guest
speakers are invited to speak in the classroom, the content of
their speeches should be academic rather than promotional.
Educators should use care in choosing learning activities. The
California 3Rs Project cautions educators not to use methods, such
as role-playing, that could risk "blurring the legal distinction
between constitutional teaching about religion and school-sponsored
practice of religion, which is prohibited by the First Amendment to
the U.S. Constitution."
In January, Excelsior School in the Byron Union School District
near Oakland, California, drew criticism for its three-week course
on Islam. Seventh-graders adopted Muslim names, read verses from
the Qur'an, learned to write Islamic proverbs in Arabic, and
organized a pretend hajj, or journey to Mecca. The course handout
read, "From the beginning, you and your classmates will become
Muslims." In response, the California 3Rs project cautioned
educators that "role-playing religious practices runs the risk of
trivializing and caricaturing the religion that is being studied.
It's more respectful and educationally sound to view a video of
real Muslims practicing their faith than having a group of
seventh-graders pretend to be Muslims. ... Role-playing runs the
risk of putting students in the position of participating in
activities that may violate their (or their parents') consciences.
Such an issue doesn't arise when teachers teach about religion by
assigning research, viewing videos, and through class instruction
rather than organizing activities that may be easily perceived,
rightly or wrongly, as promoting students' participation in a
Although the law does not permit the celebration of religious
holidays in school, it does permit teaching about religious
holidays. Instruction may include the use of religious symbols,
sacred music, literature, art, and drama. Such activities must have
academic or aesthetic value and be used to promote knowledge and
understanding rather than religious conviction. It is appropriate,
for example, to hold a concert that includes a variety of secular
and sacred music from diverse traditions. Student-created artwork
with religious symbols is permissible, but teachers should not
encourage or discourage the content of the artwork.
Off-Campus Religious Classes
Religious instruction may occur during school hours off campus.
Twenty-nine states currently have "released-time" programs that
allow students to attend weekly classes on religion. Designed by
the local community, programs may include the study and
memorization of sacred texts, or discussion of topics like
character, peer pressure, or substance abuse. Typically, programs
provide an hour a week of instruction for students in grades K-6.
Some states have daily high school--level programs.
The Supreme Court's 1952 Zorach v. Clauson decision affirmed the
constitutionality of released-time religious education. Programs
must be voluntary and off-site, and students must have parental
permission. Sponsors provide transportation and assume liability
for participating students.
Student Religious Expression
Religious speech is protected under the Constitution. Students
may express religious beliefs in the classroom and during
noninstructional hours, so long as they do not infringe on the
rights of other students or disrupt school proceedings. Expression
includes speech, artwork, written assignments, and even clothing.
Students are permitted to pray individually and in groups. They may
read sacred texts and discuss religion with other willing students.
Students are allowed to wear clothing with religious messages if
apparel with secular messages or symbols meets the dress code. They
may distribute religious literature under the same terms that
govern the distribution of nonschool-related literature.
In general, religious student groups have the same liberties as
secular student groups.
The fourth R: When public school students study about religion,
they pursue "an important part of a complete education," according
to a joint statement by the National Education Association and the
Christian Coalition. The Equal Access Act of 1984 protects
student-led religious groups in public secondary schools that
receive federal funds and allow nonacademic groups to meet on
school grounds. Under the law, religious student groups must be
accorded the same access, resources, or recognition as other
student organizations. If a school-spirit club or a chess team
meets after school in a classroom, the school must give faith-based
clubs the same right to meet. The only difference is that religious
groups must be initiated and led solely by students. Teachers may
monitor them but may not participate. Teachers may participate in
religious activities, such as prayer, alone or with other teachers
outside of the presence of students. Last year, the Supreme Court
extended the right of access to private community organizations in
Good News Club v. Milford Central School. If other community groups
such as the Girl Scouts or 4-H Clubs are permitted on campus,
religious activity groups must also be allowed to meet. The
decision says that speech with an explicit religious message is as
constitutionally protected as other speech.
Religious expression is not only constitutional; according to
many experts, it is also beneficial. Creating a space for religious
expression, they say, can improve the school environment. They say
that such policies recognize the value of religious expression,
show respect for students' deeply held beliefs, and build trust
between parents and schools.
Last November, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, New York
City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy issued a statement affirming
students' rights to religious expression of all faiths and urging
schools to show sensitivity to requests for religious
accommodation. He stated, "Tolerance for religious devotion is one
of the hallmarks of our democracy. I would ask that during these
difficult times all staff continue to be vigilant in both
respecting religious beliefs and protecting fundamental
constitutional principles." Levy's respect for students' religious
beliefs and expression provided an example for other educators
following the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
Schools need not be and, legally speaking, should not be
"religion-free" zones. The Supreme Court has affirmed students'
rights to religious expression and the appropriateness of
instruction about religion. An understanding of the role of
religion in history, art, and current events is necessary for a
well-rounded education. Religious expression is protected for
students of every faith. They are free to pray and otherwise
practice their religion so long as it is not disruptive. Released
time provides students with the opportunity for religious
instruction off campus. Religious groups by law must be accorded
the same treatment as secular groups on campus.
Knowing the law is the first step toward building equitable and
constitutional school policies. Resources are available to help
educators, parents, students, and communities. The Department of
Education, the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, the Family
Research Council, and the NEA, for example, have information on
their Web sites.
Opening of dialogue between schools, parents, and community
groups can help promote understanding and support for these school
policies and programs. In a 1999 letter to educators,
then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley advised that "in
developing such a policy, school officials can engage parents,
teachers, the various faith communities, and the broader community
in a positive dialogue to define a common ground that gives all
parties the assurance that when questions do arise regarding
religious expression the community is well prepared to apply these
guidelines to specific cases."
Supported by the law and the community, schools can create
numerous opportunities for learning and expression in public
schools. Through these opportunities, students will gain a more
well- rounded education and a greater appreciation for the diverse
religious heritage of other students.
Krista Kafer is an education policy analyst at the Heritage
Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research
Originally appeared in World and I magazine
ed083102: How to Teach Religion in Public Schools
Senior Education Policy Analyst
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