Secularism in Public Schools: Teaching Religion and Teaching About Religion

Angelo Franco


In October of 2015, Representative Sheila Butt (R-Columbia) introduced a bill into the Tennessee legislature prohibiting the state Board of Education from including “religious doctrine in any curriculum standards for grades prior to grades ten through twelve.”  In other words, it banned the teaching of religion in public schools for any grades below tenth.


A seemingly commonsensical and arguably reasonable statute, the bill drew a significant amount of both backlash and support because of the inherent ramifications it would produce. Congresswoman Butt argued that the current teachings were not age-appropriate and that, at that age, students are not able to discern between indoctrination and learning about what religion teaches. The bill was introduced at a time when anti-Islamic sentiments have surfaced across the country, and when Tennessean parents have expressed discontent with schools teaching about the Five Pillars of Islam.


If passed, the bill would, intrinsically, ban schools from teaching about Islam and other topics that the state may consider indoctrination. Opponents of the bill (mostly educators) argue that it is a targeted attempt at a particular religion because, as it is, laws banning the teaching of religion in schools already exist at the federal level. The bill has also spurred the conversation on whether religion should be taught in public schools at all, regardless of the secularism facet of such teachings that the law would demand.


One early test of the separation of church and state, at least with respect to education, came in the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case of McCollum v. Board of Education [of Champaign County, Illinois]. In her lawsuit, McCollum asked that the Board of Education to adopt and enforce rules and regulations prohibiting all instruction and teaching of all religious education in all public schools.


Eight years prior to the lawsuit, various members of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths formed an association and obtained permission from the Champaign County Board of Education to offer voluntary religious classes for public school students from grades fourth to ninth. McCollum argued that these classes were not in fact voluntary, as they took place during school hours in school buildings, and students were nothing short of forced to attend, lest they miss out on actual school time and were ostracized for not being present.  After both the County Circuit Court and the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, McCollum appealed her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. SCOTUS found in favor of McCollum, and effectively ruled that all religion teachings in tax-funded public schools are unconstitutional. 


A landmark decision, McCollum v. Board of Education also sparked a divisive gray area between what is legally permissible in schools and what can be considered religious indoctrination. Many wrongfully believe that public schools are religion-free zones because of this ruling, but the Equal Protection Act of the highly contested Fourteenth Amendment of the United States says otherwise. It is a very murky area that still has many difficult issues to resolve. Under the Equal Protection Act, for example, a student is allowed to submit an art assignment depicting a religious act or iconography, and it must be accepted and graded accordingly and without any bias. But because of the McCollum v. Board of Education ruling, this same artwork may not be allowed to be exhibited on a school hallway. (The other landmark case often cited with the topic of secularism in public schools is Abington School District v. Schempp of 1963, in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an actual Pennsylvania law that required at least ten verses from the Holy Bible be read as part of the beginning of each school day in all its schools within its district.)


A more recent case based on this same gray area between indoctrination and teaching about religion was brought to a U.S. District Court in Rhode Island. In July of 2011, 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist sued the City of Cranston, Rhode Island, over a banner that hung on her public school’s auditorium. A gift from the class of 1963, Cranston High School West’s first graduating class, the banner displayed a prayer that began with the phrase “Our Heavenly Father” and ended with an “Amen.” Ahlquist, who had been raised a Catholic but considered herself an atheist at the time, sued the city (with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union) on the grounds that the banner violated her First and Fourteenth Amendments.



The banner had drawn controversy before when a year prior to the lawsuit, the ACLU requested the school board remove the banner because it infringed on the beliefs of nonreligious students and was unconstitutional. After many heated debates brought upon by this request, the school board voted to keep the banner hanging in the auditorium. In Ahlquist v. City of Cranston, the defendants argued that the banner’s significance was not principally religious but rather a memento from the school’s founding days, and the message in itself was largely secular. The District Judge however, an appointee of Ronald Reagan, sided with Ahlquist and ordered that the banner be taken down, as he found its display on public school grounds to be unconstitutional.  


Rhode Island is a vastly democrat state (it has only voted Republican in four presidential elections) that remains the second most Catholic state of the Union, the first being Massachusetts. Ahlquist drew severe backlash for her lawsuit, received death threats, and at one point had to be escorted to school flanked by security personnel. Democrat State Representative Peter Palumbo caller her “an evil little thing” on a radio show, and florists refused to deliver flowers that had been sent to Ahlquist from supporters around the country.


Cases like Ahlquist’s, and even McCollum’s over half a century prior, exemplify the divisive nature of the topic. Should religion be taught in public schools, in a responsible and completely secular manner? Or should it even be mentioned at all?


There is, certainly, the inescapable fact that religions are so irrevocably weaved with world cultures that they must be mentioned in a number of subjects, such as Geography, History, or Social Studies classes. After all, it would be impossible to teach students about the Mayflower, algebra, or the Crusades without also touching base on the importance that religion took in all these matters. Proponents of teaching about religion in schools argue that it is an important facet for pupils to understand the world around them, particularly for younger students. They say, for instance, that teasing about religion can begin as early as kindergarten; and that Americans simply remain woefully ignorant about world religions in general.


A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that more than half of adults did not know Friday evening was the start of the Jewish Sabbath, or that the Dalai Lama was a Buddhist. Meanwhile, over half the participants knew the Koran is the holy book of Islam, but did now know that Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, is mostly a Muslim country; in fact, it is the most populous Muslim-majority country. The quiz, by the way, also included the questions of whether or not, according to rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, a teacher is allowed to lead a prayer in a public school, or read from the Bible as an example of literature (the answers to which are no and yes, respectively).



On the other hand, opponents on the issue argue that any presence of religion in public schools creates divisiveness, and that awareness of religious differences often creates walls between students. They state that teaching about religion should be the responsibility of the parents, and that no student should feel ostracized at any moment because of religious differences, as was the case with Ahlquist. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, for example, handles over 2,000 complaints per year from parents concerned about the separation of church and state. Devotional instruction and religious exercises are, of course, different from academic instruction, and opponents confer that, ideally, there would at least be a class on comparative religion at the high school level in public schools. The issue, they say, is that the non-religious sectarians are often overlooked, and the absence of faith itself should be considered and also be taught in these classes. Interestingly, atheists/agnostics, Jewish, and Mormons fared better on the Pew Research Center’s test cited above, while Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics fared the poorest.


In contrast with Rep. Butt’s initiative, some schools are taking an active approach to teaching about religion. In Wichita, Kansas, students begin learning simple facts about at least three major world religions in the first grade. In Modesto, California, high school students are required to take a world religions class in order to graduate. And in Wellesley, Massachusetts, students even take field trips to local mosques and temples, an activity that has sparked nationwide criticism. In May of 2010, as part of a mandatory class of world religions, over 200 middle school students visited the mosque at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. During the call to afternoon prayer, a male worshipper told five Wellesley boys that they could participate if they’d like. The boys did and, unknown to anyone, this was videotaped by an unidentified parent. After the video surfaced, Wellesley Middle School found itself in a media conundrum.  The school conceded that there had been an oversight and the boys should not have been left unattended, but remained adamant that it was an individual who had asked the boys to join them, not any school official and had thus broken no laws. Parents were also divided on the issue, some condemning the practice while others applauded the inclusion of other cultures and religions into the school’s curriculum.


The issue of secularism in public schools remains widely contested. The legislature that Rep. Butt introduced has since been withdrawn, but suburban towns in Tennessee are still grappling with the very thin line between indoctrination and instruction (a rather fascinating phenomenon in some cases, such as in Williamson County, which has almost 200 churches within its limits alone, and its ongoing battle against what parents are afraid is Islamic indoctrination in the county’s schools).


Our very own pledge of allegiance, which is dutifully and traditionally recited at the beginning of each school day, contains a religious passage. Meanwhile, Wellesley Middle School continues to teach world religion classes and taking its student to temples and mosques, as they believe that it is a very enriching experience and, with the appropriate guidelines, it can be done without breaking the separation of church and state. For their field trips now, though, they visit the mosque in Wayland, which doesn’t offer regular prayers during the day and students being asked to join in is much more unlikely. 


Author Bio:

Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.


For Highbrow Magazine


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