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Public schools exist to educate, not to proselytize. Horace Mann, the father of our public school system, championed the elimination of sectarianism from American schools, largely accomplished by the 1840s. Bible reading, prayers or hymns in public schools were absent from most public schools by the end of the 19th century, after Catholic or minority-religion immigrants objected to Protestant bias in public schools.
As early as the 1850s, the Superintendent of Schools of New York state ordered that prayers could no longer be required as part of public school activities. The Cincinnati Board of Education ruled in 1869 that “religious instruction and the reading of religious books, including the Holy Bible, was prohibited in the common schools of Cincinnati.” Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt called for “absolutely nonsectarian public schools.” Roosevelt stated that it is “not our business to have the Protestant Bible or the Catholic Vulgate or the Talmud read in those schools.”
In McCollum vs. Board of Education (1948), the Supreme Court struck down religious instruction in public schools. In Tudor vs. Board of Education of Rutherford, the Court let stand a lower court ruling that the practice of allowing volunteers to distribute Gideon Bibles at public schools was unconstitutional.
In Engel vs. Vitale (1962), the Court ruled that prayer in public schools is unconstitutional. In Abington Township School District vs. Schempp (1963), the Court ruled that Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools are unconstitutional. In Stone vs. Graham (1980), the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms was also declared unconstitutional. In Lee vs. Weisman (1992), the Court ruled that prayers at public school graduation ceremonies are an establishment of religion.
Although the high court ruled that state-sanctioned prayer in schools is unconstitutional, it did not seek to remove all study about religion. In fact, in Abington Township School District vs. Schempp (1963), the justices maintained that a student’s education is not complete without instruction on the influence of religion on history, culture and literature.
Justice Tom Clark, representing the court, wrote: “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.” Clark added that government could not force the exclusion of religion in schools “in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.” The court’s ruling suggested merely that a student’s family, not government, is responsible for decisions about religious instructions and guidance. There was respect, not hostility, toward religion in the court’s ruling.
Justice Clark concluded: “The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church, and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.”
In 1995, a joint statement of current law regarding religion in public schools was published by a variety of religious and civil liberties organizations. This statement served as the basis for U.S. Department of Education guidelines intended to alleviate concerns about constitutional religious activities in schools. Here are some general rules concerning what school personnel and students may do:
(1) Students have the right to pray or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive.
(2) The history of religion and comparative religion are permissible school subjects so long as the approach is objective and serves a legitimate educational purpose.
(3) Students may study the role of religion in the history of the United States.
(4) Schools may discuss various religious groups’ beliefs about the origin of life on Earth in comparative religion or social studies classes.
(5) Students may express their religious beliefs in the forms of reports, homework and artwork so long as such expression meets the other criteria of the assignment.
(6) Religious or anti-religious remarks made in the ordinary course of classroom discussion or student presentations and that are germane are permissible, but students do not have the right to give sermons to a captive audience.
(7) Students have the right to distribute religious literature to their classmates, subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.
(8) Students have the right to speak to, and attempt to persuade their peers about religious topics just as they do with regard to political topics.
(9) Student religious clubs in secondary schools must be permitted to meet and to have equal access to campus media to announce their meetings.
(10) Public schools may teach objectively about religious holidays and may celebrate the secular aspects of the holiday.
(11) Students may wear religious messages on clothing, just as they may wear religious attire, such as yarmulkes and head scarves.
(12) Students may be released for religious instruction off school premises.
(13) Students may read the Bible or other religious literature during their free time at school.
Faith groups that support the First Amendment and oppose government-sponsored prayer in public schools include: National Council of Churches; American Baptist Churches, USA; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); The Episcopal Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Friends Committee on National Legislation; Mennonite Central Committee USA; Presbyterian Church (USA); General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists; United Church of Christ; United Methodist Church; Unitarian Universalist Association; American Jewish Congress; Anti-Defamation League; Central Conference of American Rabbis; National Council of Jewish Women; North American Council for Muslim Women; Soka Gakkai International—USA.
Most religious denominations, ranging across the theological spectrum, have issued formal statements supporting the Supreme Court’s prayer and Bible-reading decisions. These people of faith value the hard-won freedom of conscience that belongs to all of us.
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