Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Does God Belong in Public Schools?

Does God Belong in Public Schools?

Kent Greenawalt
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 272
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Does God Belong in Public Schools?
    Book Description:

    Controversial Supreme Court decisions have barred organized school prayer, but neither the Court nor public policy exclude religion from schools altogether. In this book, one of America's leading constitutional scholars asks what role religion ought to play in public schools. Kent Greenawalt explores many of the most divisive issues in educational debate, including teaching about the origins of life, sex education, and when--or whether--students can opt out of school activities for religious reasons.

    Using these and other case studies, Greenawalt considers how to balance the country's constitutional commitment to personal freedoms and to the separation of church and state with the vital role that religion has always played in American society. Do we risk distorting students' understanding of America's past and present by ignoring religion in public-school curricula? When does teaching about religion cross the line into the promotion of religion?

    Tracing the historical development of religion within public schools and considering every major Supreme Court case, Greenawalt concludes that the bans on school prayer and the teaching of creationism are justified, and that the court should more closely examine such activities as the singing of religious songs and student papers on religious topics. He also argues that students ought to be taught more about religion--both its contributions and shortcomings--especially in courses in history. To do otherwise, he writes, is to present a seriously distorted picture of society and indirectly to be other than neutral in presenting secularism and religion.

    Written with exemplary clarity and even-handedness, this is a major book about some of the most pressing and contentious issues in educational policy and constitutional law today.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2627-8
    Subjects: Education, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    On March 11, 2002, the Ohio school board heard conflicting testimony over what the state should teach about the history of life on earth. Parents had objected to their children being taught that Darwinian evolutionary theory is true. Believing that the theory is not only false but undermines sound religion and morality, the parents wanted teachers to present an account of life that recognizes God’s creative hand. Two scientists testified that standard evolutionary theory cannot explain the complexity of organs like the eye and of many individual cells, which reveal an intelligent design. Unlike many so-called creationists, who claim that...


    • CHAPTER 1 A Brief History of American Public Schools and Religion
      (pp. 13-22)

      As we have seen, although American public schools have continually aimed to educate children to be moral persons and good citizens, the place of religion has undergone a fundamental shift: from colonial times to the mid–twentieth century, primary and secondary education became increasingly public, universal, and secular.

      Here we consider the growth of public education in the United States, looking at the complex motivations of the innovators of the public school movement, at the ʺnonsectarianʺ religious teaching and devotions in which those schools engaged, and at the schoolsʹ growing secularity in the late nineteenth century. History cannot solve our...

    • CHAPTER 2 Purposes of Public School Education
      (pp. 23-34)

      The constitutional principle that government should not establish religion sets limits on the place of religion in public schools, but the purposes of those schools provide powerful reasons not to disregard religion altogether. Reflection on this tension requires us to consider several issues. How does teaching about religion fit with the basic purposes of public education? Should schools aim to counter spillover effects on religious belief and affiliation caused by liberal education? How should the authority of parents, educators, school boards and legislators interact in determining what schools do?

      Clearly, American education serves multiple, overlapping objectives. These include developing the...


    • CHAPTER 3 Devotional Practices: Prayer and Bible Reading
      (pp. 37-57)

      In 1951, New Yorkʹs State Board of Regents, with broad supervisory powers over the public schools, composed this nondenominational prayer that it recommended classes recite each day.¹After a group of parents in New Hyde Park objected to studentsʹ saying the prayer, New York courts sustained the prayer, assuming that participation in it was voluntary. In Pennsylvania and the city of Baltimore, laws required that the school day begin with a reading of the Bible, without comment.²A Unitarian father in Pennsylvania objected to the stateʹs practice of Bible reading, and the famous atheist Madalyn Murray (OʹHair) complained about Baltimoreʹs. The Supreme...

    • CHAPTER 4 Moments of Silence
      (pp. 58-63)

      Many states and school districts have instituted moments of silence to replace oral prayer to begin the school day.¹ Students are free to use their moment of silence to pray, meditate, reflect on the day ahead, or remember last nightʹs party. As we shall see, the Supreme Court has indicated by a kind of indirection that standard moment-of-silence laws are constitutional, but that does not settle whether observing a moment of silence is really consistent with the Supreme Courtʹs approach to oral classroom prayer. Of course, many officials may not care about consistency—they may regardEngelandSchemppas...

    • CHAPTER 5 Teaching Religious Propositions
      (pp. 64-68)

      In the cases we have examined so far, public schools did not actually teach that particular religious ideas are true, but the Supreme Courtʹs decisions and opinions indicate clearly that such teaching is unconstitutional. The Court has consistently held that the government may not prefer one religion over another,¹ and inAbington Township v. Schempp, Justice Clark quoted approvingly Justice Jacksonʹs conception of public schools as providing a ʺsecular education,ʺ inculcating ʺneeded temporal knowledgeʺ and maintaining a ʺstrict and lofty neutrality as to religion.ʺ² Writing for the Court in holding an antievolution law invalid, Justice Fortas was still more explicit:...

    • CHAPTER 6 Equal Facilities
      (pp. 69-76)

      A conclusion that public schools cannot teach religious propositions as true or sponsor religious devotions does not settle how they should treat student groups organized as independent clubs. A restrictive approach would be to bar religious groups from meeting on school facilities, on the theory that for schools to assist religion in this way is intrinsically inappropriate or will create the impression that the state is sponsoring religion. A diametrically opposed approach would be to confer special rights on students who organize in religious groups, because of the general value of free exercise and the schoolʹs inability to teach religious...


    • CHAPTER 7 Teaching and Religion in the Public School
      (pp. 79-87)

      The Supreme Courtʹs decisions forbidding prayers and devotional Bible reading have proved among the most controversial the Court has ever rendered, yet whether to begin the school day with a few minutes of devotion matters far less than what schools teach about religion. Constitutional lawyers have given little attention to this nettlesome issue because the Court, having determined that teachingaboutreligion is all right, has not reviewed programs that educators have labeled in this way.

      Many citizens continue to resent the Courtʹs assumption that schools cannot present Christianity, or theocratic religion, as true; but even people who agree that...

    • CHAPTER 8 Teaching Natural Science I: Relation between Science and Religion
      (pp. 88-100)

      The fiercest controversy over how religious perspectives might figure in public schools has centered on the teaching of evolution, a subject within natural science. In this and the next two chapters, I focus on that controversy, and on general issues about natural science and religion that it illustrates. These three chapters set a model for comparison of teaching other disciplines, which lack criteria of truth and methods as well settled as those of modern science.

      Because the debate about evolution has endured so long, because the Supreme Court has twice dealt with laws that restricted the teaching of evolution, and...

    • CHAPTER 9 Teaching Natural Science II: Evolutionism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design
      (pp. 101-115)

      A careful assessment of the place of evolution, creationism, and intelligent design in public schools requires matching the specific claims and methodological foundations of each against an analysis of what belongs in a science course and what counts as teaching religion.

      Educators need to evaluate whether any theory about the development of life is ʺscientific,ʺ or nevertheless closely enough related to science to belong in a science course, and whether, from a scientific standpoint, the theory is minimally plausible.

      Although I have no expertness in evaluating the plausibility of scientific claims, my appraisals are nevertheless worth stating, both because almost...

    • CHAPTER 10 Teaching Natural Science III: What Amounts to Teaching Religion?
      (pp. 116-125)

      Thus far, we have concentrated on what counts as science or belongs in a science course. We now approach our topic from the perspective that matters for constitutional law: what counts as teaching religion? We shall focus first on the responsibilities of educators, saving judicial enforcement of the Establishment Clause for the last section.

      Teaching creationism in its full-blown, Genesis version is teaching religion, even if the material is taught as creation science, Scripture is not mentioned, and terms likeabrupt appearanceare substituted for divine creation. The difficulty is not that the theory has implications for some religious propositions,...

    • CHAPTER 11 History, Economics, and Literature
      (pp. 126-137)

      In this chapter, we will look at three subjects, two of which, along with mathematics and natural science, are part of the core of public school curricula. Literature is a central component of most English courses, and it is the primary focus of upper-level courses. Students learn history in most school years. Economics is less central, but is an important subtopic within the broader category of ʺsocial studies.ʺ In the next chapter we will take up education about government and good citizenship, as well as teaching about morality more generally.

      We have seen that the natural sciences adopt a strategy...

    • CHAPTER 12 Morals, Civics, and Comparative Religion
      (pp. 138-151)

      In this chapter, we focus first on the delicate subject of teaching morality and civic responsibility, both on general approaches and on how schools should deal with such controversial topics as sex education. In chapter 2, on educational purposes, we examined how far schools should teach morality, beyond what is relevant to good citizenship. We also asked whether students should be encouraged to deliberate about civic issues apart from their religious convictions, and whether schools should try to counter the negative effects on religious understandings of whatever they teach about civic morality and other aspects of the moral life.


    • CHAPTER 13 Constitutional Constraints and Other Legal Limits
      (pp. 152-160)

      In contrast to the chapters on evolution, creationism, and intelligent design, the discussions of history, economics, literature, morals, civics, and comparative religion do not clearly distinguish between what schools should do and the constitutional limits of what they may do. We now turn to those limits and to legal restraints on the expression of teachers that do not directly concern the curriculum-in particular, dress regulations.

      When a writer analyzes constitutional limits, he normally describes the relevant constitutional tests and suggests how they apply to the subject at hand. The broad constitutional tests for the Establishment Clause are now, as chapter...


    • CHAPTER 14 Student Rights to Religious Freedom and to Free Speech on Religious Topics
      (pp. 163-173)

      In fulfilling assignments, responding to various school invitations, or acting on their own, public school students may wish to engage in speech that is religious or is about a religious topic. If teachers or school authorities do not allow the speech, the studentʹs parents may claim that her rights to free speech and free exercise have been violated.¹ In this chapter we look at these issues—except for the activities of religious clubs and religious speech at graduation ceremonies, covered in previous chapters²—through the lens of some leading cases.

      A teacher gives students an assignment to write a paper...

    • CHAPTER 15 Excusing Students When They or Their Parents Object
      (pp. 174-188)

      In our final chapter, we will consider what schools should do when parents or students seek exceptions from standard requirements. Typically, parents with religious objections to aspects of the educational program want their children to be excused. In recent decades, most such complaints have been made by devoutly religious parents who worry that their childrenʹs faith will be undermined by forms of secular instruction. Religious objections to curriculums will almost certainly increase if schools deal more fully with religion; some parents will not want their children educated about other religions.

      When responding to complaints of this sort, educators must evaluate...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 189-256)
  10. Index
    (pp. 257-261)