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date: 28 September 2023

Religion in Schools in the United Statesfree

Religion in Schools in the United Statesfree

  • Suzanne RosenblithSuzanne RosenblithClemson University


The relationship between religion and public education has been fraught with misunderstanding, confusion, tension, and hostility. Perhaps more so than other forms of identity, for many, religion evokes a strong sense of exclusivity. Unlike other forms of identity, for many, particularly the religiously orthodox, religious identity is based on a belief in absolute truth. And for some of the orthodox, adherence to this truth is central to their salvation. Further, unlike cultural identity, religion is oftentimes exclusive in its fundamental claims and assertions. In short, matters of religious faith are indeed high stakes. Yet its treatment in public schools is, for the most part, relatively scant. Some of this is because of uncertainty among educators as to what the law permits, and for others it is uncertainty of its rightful place in democratic pluralistic schools.


  • Education and Society


This article seeks to provide an overview of the historical, legal, and curricular relationship between religion and public schooling in the United States. This relationship, often fraught with tension, attempts to reconcile often incommensurable public goals. The article begins with a review of the history of religion in the public domain. Since public schools are often thought of as microcosms of society, it is important to understand the relationship of religion within society. Following this overview, the article delves more deeply into seminal court cases that have more or less cemented the legal constraints of religion in public education. With legal parameters in mind, the next section explores the relationship of religion in public schools from curricular perspectives. Moving beyond a discussion of creationism in science class, this section aims to examine the benefits of broader inclusion of religious perspectives as a way to approximate pluralistic and democratic schools. The final section explores broader concerns for a liberal democracy—pluralism, autonomy, and respect—as it wrestles with the appropriateness of religion and religious identity in public schools.

History of Religion in the Public Sphere

To understand the contemporary relationship between religion and public schooling requires a review of the history of religion in the public sphere. Many schoolchildren in the United States have been taught that the first European settlers to the colonies fled Europe and the Church of England to seek freedom to exercise their religious beliefs. And while this is true, far from the feel-good narrative that some like to extend (Baritz, 1964), the first settlers, the Puritans, were an extremely rigid and dogmatic group of religious believers who settled in the colonies not for freedom of religion but to practice and entrench their religious beliefs (Kaveny, 2013). They did not believe in a secular state but rather believed their version of Christianity to be predominant, and as far as they could see, the only justifiable established religion (Fiske, 1889). The Puritans believed Satan lurked around every corner and that religion was the essential tool to ward off Satan’s trickery. This in fact was the basis for the 1647 Old Deluder Satan Act (Constitution Society, 1647).

Common School Movement

As time progressed after the American Revolution, leaders like Horace Mann and Benjamin Rush made calls for a more organized public school system (Rudolph, 1965). Horace Mann famously called for the creation of the Common School (Hinsdale, 1898). Though Mann grew up, like so many, in a deeply religious home, he did not think these new public schools needed to be centrally religious. That is, their focus was not to be on inculcating biblical views, but rather for Mann, the focus of the Common School was to cultivate a tolerant, what we might call today, pluralistic, citizenry (Mann & Massachusetts Board of Education, 1957). Morality, more so than literal scriptural reading, was what Mann called for. For Mann, the chief concern in creating this Common School was attending to the increasing social strife that came as a result of the development of industry (Mann, 1965). Further, Mann was concerned about racial/ethnic hostility as the newest waves of immigrants to the United States were from Southern and Eastern Europe. Not only did they look different than the Northern and Western European immigrants, but they came with different languages, customs, and cultures. Assimilating them into a decidedly American culture was a goal for Mann and his allies (Hayes, 2006). All in all, the most orthodox religious believers were supportive of Mann’s efforts because these common schools exuded what was considered a nondenominational Protestantism (Moore, 2000). On the one hand was the belief that if you wanted the kind of hard-working, morally upright, conscientious citizens, then religion necessarily needed to be a part of the Common School. On the other hand, the religion that was foundational to the school did not need to be sectarian so as to privilege one group to the exclusion of others.

And so the Common School and then the Public School very much functioned with a role for religion—in many/most states, the school day began with a biblical recitation. In many schools, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, McGuffey Readers were the main textbook (Westerhoff, 1978). The Readers, unlike their predecessor the New England Primer, mirrored this nondenominational Protestantism by inculcating morality through a veiled Christianity as opposed to a direct and overt use of the King James Bible in efforts to educate young citizens to become literate. For example, the New England Primer had a solemn prayer to be recited everyday, which states, “Oh Lord God, I beseech thee, of thy fatherly goodness and mercy to pardon all my offenses which in though, word, or deed, I have this day committed against thee and thy holy law” (The New England Primer, 1805). The McGuffey Reader, in comparison, invoked a more nondenominational, less orthodox, religious tone. In one of its lessons it states, “I hope you have said your prayers and thanked your Father in Heaven for all his goodness … for your good health, and a blessing of home” (McGuffey, 1836).

Modernization and Industrialization

A significant, some might argue fatal, shift for those advocating the centrality of religion to public schools came in the early mid-20th century. As has always been the case, public schools, serving as microcosms of society, reflect not just the dominant values and ethos of society, but also serve an important economic and intellectual purpose. That is, to the degree that the needs of society change, so must the public schools. Public schools were the central place to prepare the young for future citizenship. While an important part of that citizenship was moral and social, increasingly with industrialization, that role was also intellectual and economic (Fraser, 2001). The frame through which public schools cultivated curriculum changed substantially. For example, the type of citizen and future worker needed expanded from someone who was morally upright to someone who could contribute to the burgeoning Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Shifting from the absolutism and fixidity of religion to the flexibility and tentativeness of science required a rethinking of pedagogy and curriculum (Greene, 2012). Further, with the country’s religious diversity increasing and the country itself maturing, religion seemed to be less central to the public schools. In contrast, understanding that ethical decision-making required an understanding of the context in which a person might find herself as opposed to the absolutes favored by religious belief, required a more open-ended, what today we might call, critical reasoning approach, to teaching and learning (Sears & Carper, 1998). The idea that the world was not absolute and fixed but ever changing, caused a real need for a different sort of education. As nondenominational Protestantism lost its stronghold over public schools in favor of a more science-focused secularism, Christian Orthodox—the Evangelical—become its harshest critics. They argue that the removal of God (religion) from the public sphere is a threat to their faith and a violation of their rights (Larson, 1997). Court cases related to religion and public education seem to lend some credence to their claims. The tension between the religiously orthodox, specifically evangelical Christians, and the secular public schools began in the mid-20th century and has persisted to the present day (Deckman, 2004).

To survey popular media, particularly cable news, one might depict the current state of tension between those advocating for more religion in public schools and those advocating for its removal in the following way. On the one hand you have religious zealots making calls for prayer, creationism, released time, religious clubs, posting the Ten Commandments (Rogers, 2010; Shreve, 2010) and to the other extreme you have atheist zealots who refuse to consider any idea that has some association with religion as appropriate for public schools (Hedges, 2008). While these caricatures might fit some in each of these groups, contrary to the popular media depiction is, instead, a conflict built upon a reliance on different aspects of the first part of the First Amendment. That is, those advocating for more religion in public schools cite the “Free Exercise Clause” as the basis for their demands (Hodgson, 2004), while those arguing for a relatively “religious free public school” argue that anything less than this would be an instantiation of government support or “Establishment” of religion (Long, 2012). Given this, it is important to understand the legal context in which these tensions arise.

Religion and the Law

Perspectives on Establishment

The first part of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (U.S. Const. amend. I). The establishment clause, as it is commonly called, is meant to protect individuals from the establishment of an official state religion. In contrast, the function of the free exercise clause is to protect individual religious freedom. In terms of legal impact, the establishment clause has historically garnered more attention because of the wide-sweeping impact a legal decision will have. In contrast, free exercise cases address issues that pertain largely to religious minorities, so the impact is smaller and more context dependent.

Typically, when justices decide Establishment Clause cases they are asked to determine whether an enactment effectively establishes, or supports, a state religion. There are generally three different judicial perspectives on establishment, strict separation, accommodation, and neutral separation. Strict separationists invoke the idea of a wall separating Church and State. For strict separationists there is no instance in which an enactment would be tolerated (Neuhaus, 2007). Accommodationists point to the Framers’ “original intent” and argue that the only thing the Framers were concerned about in terms of the role of religion in government was the establishment of an official State Church. Barring this, certain accommodations are permissible as long as government does not prefer one religion to another (Massaro, 2005). Finally, the neutral separation position examines enactments with a slightly different lens arguing that what is most important is official State neutrality between religion and non-religion and thus argue that to adhere to the establishment clause may mean at times accommodating religion if it is to maintain neutrality between religion and non-religion (Fox, 2011; Temperman, 2010). Generally speaking, when focusing on the major court cases that have impacted public education, the neutral separation position has carried the day when it comes to issues such as school prayer, religious instruction, and released time.

Immediately following the Civil War, Congress passed the 14th amendment that states, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States … ” What this means is one’s national citizenship is one’s highest source of rights. The degree to which state laws contradict federal/constitutional laws, state laws must give way. For our discussion this is important because it is the application of the 14th amendment to the 1st amendment that holds public schools and public school employees to the restrictions of the 1st amendment (Everson v. Board of Education). The 14th amendment application to the 1st amendment is also essential since it is the states, rather than the federal government, that hold substantive influence over public school curriculum and policy.

Several watershed cases have firmly established the preference for the neutral separation position. In McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), the court struck down an Illinois program that provided time during the school day on school premises for “released time” for religious instruction. Arguing that school personnel were involved with the administration and execution of this program was tantamount to supporting religion it was found unconstitutional. In contrast, the courts sided with the school district in Zorach v. Clauson (1952) where students were released from the school premises (with parental permission) during the school day for religious instruction arguing that it was the school’s job to maintain neutrality between religion and non-religion, and since it was the parents and students who voluntarily signed up for the released time program, the school did not violate the establishment clause by permitting such a program to continue.

Key Court Cases

In the middle of the 20th century it was commonplace for the school day to begin with a religious prayer or invocation. Beginning in 1962, cases made their way through the courts, and in every instance the court found such prayers violated the establishment clause. Engel v. Vitale (1962) concerned a New York State Board of Regents Prayer that was to be read over the intercom system in every New York public school at the start of each school day, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country. Amen.” The court ruled that the prayer violated the establishment clause because although, nondenominational (in a sense), it still favored religion over non-religion. Further, because the prayer was broadcast at the start of the school day, students had no choice (captive audience) but to listen. The following year, the court in an 8-1 decision in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) determined that a commonwealth of Pennsylvania law that read, “Ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read without comment at the opening of each public school on each school day” was unconstitutional. Of greater importance in this case was the distinction made between the unconstitutionality of practicing religion in public school with the constitutionally permissible act of studying religion in public school. That is, if there is an educational purpose to studying religion, then presumably this would be permissible. The fact that the law included the clause “without comment” made it appear to the majority of justices that it served a devotional, rather than an educational, purpose. The second significance of this case is that it offered the first two of what later became a three-prong test used to adjudicate Establishment clause cases. The first prong asks what is the primary purpose of the enactment? Is it religious or secular? The second prong asks what is the primary effect of the enactment—religious or secular? In cases where the primary purpose and effect are secular the enactment is said to be permissible. This formula is particularly useful when determining whether curriculum, such as evolution or creationism, for example, is permitted. Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) addressed the matter of an Arkansas law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. The law was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that the primary purpose of the law was to advance and protect a religious view. Following the Epperson decision was the famous case Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). It was famous mainly because of the establishment of the third prong used to adjudicate establishment clause cases. At issue in this case was the question of whether public schools could reimburse private schools for the salaries of their teachers who taught secular subjects. Since the majority of the private schools were parochial, the matter fell under establishment. In deciding that it was unconstitutional for the public schools to pay the salaries of the parochial school teachers, the court determined that while primary purpose and primary effect were central to deciding constitutionality, a third prong, which says that the enactment must not foster an excessive entanglement between religion and government was needed. Paying the salaries of private school teachers who teach secular subjects may not serve a primarily religious purpose or have a primarily religious effect, but it certainly would foster an excessive entanglement between government and religion in that government would be very involved with accounting for their investments in a parochial school.

Contemporary Tensions

Other important Establishment Clause cases related to education include Wallace v. Jaffree (1985). This case dealt with the constitutionality of moments of silence. In this case, the state of Alabama allowed for a moment of silence for the purpose of meditation or private prayer. While moments of silence with no explicit purpose have been found constitutional, this law was found unconstitutional on the grounds that it had a clear religious purpose. Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) concerned a Louisiana “balanced treatment act,” a law that required creationism be taught alongside evolution to maintain neutrality. The court, in a 7-2 decision found the law unconstitutional according to all three prongs of the Lemon test. The courts have ruled similarly in more recent court cases such as Selman v. Cobb County School District (2006), which ruled that “warning labels” on evolution texts violated the Establishment Clause as well as Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education (1997) where the majority ruled that a “disclaimer” teachers were required to read before teaching evolution was unconstitutional.

In summary, since the 1940s when the 14th amendment was applied to the 1st amendment, public schools have been limited in what counts as permissible in relation to religion and public schooling. Summing up the legal parameters nicely is a document issued by the federal government entitled, “Federal Guidelines for Religious Expression in Schools (1997).” These guidelines, developed by a wide ranging panel first commissioned during the Clinton administration and then reauthorized under George W. Bush, emphasize that restrictions on religious expression are limited to school personnel while in their official capacity. Students, in contrast, have free range to express their religious beliefs in public schools, “short of harassment.” So although the religious orthodox have claimed that God has been removed from the public schools, the legal record tells us that free exercise has only been limited in the case of school officials and not students. For example, under the Equal Access Act (1984), student-initiated religious groups are permitted at schools. However, teachers cannot create or lead these groups, though they are allowed to monitor them.

Free Exercise

It is worth mentioning briefly the role of the free exercise clause in public schools. The chief function of the free exercise clause is to provide protection to religious minorities where laws created by the majority might serve unintentionally to restrict their free exercise. The most famous free exercise case related to public schools is, Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). In this case, members of the Amish community requested an exemption from state compulsory attendance laws. Wisconsin law required all students to attend school until the age of 16. The Amish requested an exemption from the last two years of schooling (what essentially would have amounted to the first two years of high school). Their rationale was that the exposure Amish children would have could undermine their very way of life; indeed they claimed it threatened their survival. Ultimately, the court sided with the Amish for two very different reasons. First, acknowledging the importance of an education for participation in public life, the court reasoned that because the Amish live a self-sufficient life and by all outward expressions are a successful social unit, the exemption was warranted. Second, they reasoned that laws should not serve to threaten the very way of life of a religious minority group and the state ought to be respectful, not hostile, to minority religious views.

The law, then, sets clear parameters for what constitutes an establishment of religion and when individual free exercise should take precedent over generally applicable laws. One can conclude from this discussion that, contrary to the claim made by the religiously orthodox, public schools are not hostile to religion but rather are welcoming of religion in the public school in so far as it serves an educational purpose. This next section treats curriculum. Where, if at all should religion reside in the curriculum? What are the strengths and limitations of its inclusion? And finally, how does its inclusion contribute to cultivating a democratic ideal?


Curriculum serves as a battleground in education. Perhaps more than other dimensions of schooling, it tells us what is worth knowing and understanding. Curriculum, however, does not exist in a vacuum. Curriculum can be a deeply political issue, especially when dealing with the topics of science, history, and religion (Erekson, 2012). There is also significant discussion on who should set the curriculum priorities (the local school district, the states, or the federal government) as well as how much freedom teachers should have to move away from the set curriculum (Webb, 2002). How the curriculum treats religion has often created controversy. This is an even more complex issue in a society that is becoming both more non-religious as well as more religiously diverse (Pew Religious Center, 2015). Herbert Kliebard, the preeminent American curriculum historian, identifies four primary groups who have vied for supremacy in schools. These groups sought to define the U.S. educational curriculum in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were humanists, social meliorists, those focused on child development, and social efficiency educators (Kliebard, 2004; Labadee, 1987). Depending on which view enjoyed currency at a particular time in history, could determine whether religion, in some form, found its way into the formal narrative of schooling. Whereas the humanists were primarily concerned with fostering in students intellectual skills through the traditional disciplines, social meliorists thought curriculum should have a focus on activism—social improvement. Developmentalists thought that it was important to design curriculum around the development of the individual learner and social efficiency advocates thought curriculum should be limited to preparation for the workforce. As one examines different movements to include religion within the curriculum it is valuable to note which theoretical model is invoked. For these curricular approaches provide a lens into the view of religion with respect to larger society.

Religious Ways of Knowing

Discussions about the place of religion in the public schools are generally limited to robust discussions of the relevance and place of creationism in science classes (Berkman & Plutzer, 2010). Limiting discussions to creationism and science misses far more consequential arguments for an important and relevant role for religion in the public schools. Warren Nord has made perhaps the most convincing and comprehensive arguments for the centrality of religious ways of knowing to all disciplines (Nord, 2010). Nord argues that we fail to adequately teach common disciplines such as history and economics if we do not also provide religious ways of examining these disciplines (Nord & Haynes, 1998). For Nord it is not so much that religious perspectives have a stronger purchase on the truth of things, but rather the religious lens or a religious lens asks different sorts of questions than non-religious lenses and thus enlarges the conversations about various historical perspectives, economic theories, etc. For example, religion can serve as a type of critique of our current market-driven society or it can enlarge conversations related to scientific development, environmental sustainability, etc. (Nord, 1995). Nord, however, is not alone in his calls for including religion (religious perspectives) in the public school curriculum. Stephen Prothero and others have made a strong call for religious literacy (Prothero, 2007). Particularly since the terrorist attacks of 2001 in the United States, there has been a collective realization that, generally speaking, Americans are largely ignorant when it comes to understanding much about religion (Moore, 2007). Politicians and media outlets have often exploited this ignorance to create fear about Muslims, refugees, and the religious other. The contention goes, the more illiterate we are, the more religious intolerance predominates. This illiteracy is not limited to Islam, but can be said to be a general religious illiteracy (Wood, 2011). Nel Noddings has also made a forceful case for providing students with opportunities to explore existential questions in the public school classroom (Noddings, 2008). She argues that students already come to school bogged down with these types of questions, so schools have an obligation to help students make sense of them (Noddings, 1993). The Bible Literacy Project, an ambitious project endorsed by a wide range of academics and theologians provides a well-sourced textbook that can be used in schools (Bible Literacy Project, 2015). Though, their intentions may be less educational and more religious, many states have passed legislation permitting the teaching of the Bible in public schools (Goodman, 2006). The Bible used for literary or historical reasons seems justifiable (and fully constitutional). Furthermore, a “policy of inclusion” toward religion is vital for the “demands of a liberal, pluralist state” (Rosenblith, 2010).


A recent text by philosopher Liz Jackson makes the case that Muslims, in particular, are done a disservice when schools do not attend substantively to the study of Islam in schools. Her argument is based on three essential claims. First, in the absence of a substantive treatment in schools, citizens are left with popular culture depictions of Muslims (Jackson, 2010). These characterizations typically misrepresent Muslims. Second, the ways in which Muslims are depicted in social studies textbooks also take a narrow view. That is Muslims and Islam are largely depicted beginning in 2001 through the lens of terrorism (Jackson, 2011). Finally, Jackson argues that preservice teacher preparation programs do not do sufficient work in preparing future social studies teachers to be knowledgeable about Muslims and Islam, and therefore they are ill-equipped to disrupt the narratives perpetuated in textbooks or through popular culture (Jackson, 2011). It was not until the 2007 edition of the Banks and Banks Handbook on Multicultural Education that religion was even included as a form of identity (Banks & McGee Banks, 2007). Perhaps, U.S. schools should set up a system to certify teachers in the area of religious studies as they will “need to have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions” that would be expected in other disciplines (Rosenblith & Bailey, 2008). Other nations with liberal and pluralistic traditions such as Great Britain have been able to integrate religion into the curriculum while still embracing diversity and civic values (Rosenblith & Bailey, 2008).

Curricular Opportunities

There are many ways in which religion can be addressed in public school curricula that are both constitutionally permissible and educationally justifiable. Schools could provide world religion survey courses so that students have at least a superficial understanding of the range of religions in the world. Schools could offer controversial issues classes where religion could serve as both a topic and a perspective. Schools can study religious perspectives on a variety of current issues. Discussing religion does not need to lead to conflict or violence but can rather create an environment for “healthy, robust dialogue” (Rosenblith, 2008a). In an increasingly diverse society, the ability to understand the perspectives of those from other faiths is vital for social cohesion and peace. Ignoring differences does not make intolerance dissipate but often allows stereotypes and antagonism to flourish. A pluralism that merely engages in “eschewing matters of truth, is wholly inadequate. It is inadequate because it fosters ignorance” (Rosenblith, 2008a).

Central to carving out a curriculum that is both constitutionally permissible and educationally justifiable is framing it within a theory that honors the pluralistic and democratic commitments of public schools. Religious curriculum should contribute “to the public good” by helping students “develop knowledge and dispositions to resist religious intolerance and bigotry” and to understand and respect the “religious other” (Rosenblith, 2008b).

Democracy, Autonomy, Pluralism

A central question when considering the role of religion in public education is grounded in questions about the role of the school, the rights of individuals, and the rights of groups. Perhaps more than many other forms of identity, religion casts the inherent tensions in bold terms. To paraphrase John Rawls’s central question in Political Liberalism, how does a society deeply divided on doctrinal grounds learn to get along (Rawls, 2005)? To complicate matters further, even if we were to determine a mutually agreeable way forward for groups who are deeply divided by religious and political beliefs, what role would even more diverse individuals within those groups have in articulating their vision for a good life? These questions figure centrally in an understanding of religion and public schools.

Political theorists take a variety of perspectives on these matters. For some, the purpose of the public school is to privilege the pluralism of the nation and thus must be accommodating to such a degree that all particular groups feel included and valued (Kymlicka, 2001, 2015). For others, the chief purpose of public schools is fundamentally civic and to that end, while schools should try to accommodate differences, they must not do so to such a degree that it jeopardizes a sense of civic identity and the values of a liberal democracy (Macedo, 1995, 2000). While there are still others who fall somewhere in the middle, arguing that schools ought to promote a shared civic identity, but not at the expense of citizens finding the public school inhospitable to their particular religious views. In these instances, schools ought to accommodate religious believers by using levers such as opt-outs for curricular materials they find religiously objectionable if these levers prevent the groups from exiting the public schools (Gutmann, 1995). Others stress the importance of individual autonomy for students as the most important goal when looking at the often conflicting values of multiculturalism and civic liberalism (Reich, 2002).

Others are concerned about minority voices within particular religious groups (Okin, 1998). As Susan Okin points out, out of a desire to accommodate the free exercise of religious minority groups, there can be a denial of the individual rights that are the cornerstone of a liberal society. She asks what societies should do with religious groups that promote forced marriages, remove students from formal education, or prevent any outside socialization (Okin, 2002). Even though defenders of religious minorities may say that individuals have exit rights, Okin is concerned if this is truly an option for most people, especially young women who are the most oppressed in these systems. As she states, “even if it were feasible or even possible in a practical sense, exit may not be an option at all desirable, or even thinkable, to those most in need of it” (Okin, 2002). She does not believe the state should make special exemptions for religious groups if it endangers individual liberty. To fail to enforce these individual rights is “to let toleration for diversity run amok” (Okin, 2002). The prototypical example of this tension can be found in the famous case, Wisconsin v Yoder (1972). The majority decision sided with the Amish who only wanted their children to study in public schools until the age of 14 out of religious concerns (Wisconsin v. Yoder, 1972). While the case is a moot issue today in an age where the option to homeschool is relatively simple (Gaither, 2008), it still generates significant discussion in relation to discussions of individual rights. Certainly the parents have rights that are distinguishable from the state, but many will argue that children have rights distinct from their parents (Worthington & Fineman, 2009). While it might be the parents’ interest in securing protection from exposing their kids to ways of life contrary to their own, the question becomes whether children have rights as individual agents and do the parents’ decisions overly determine their children’s futures. This leads to some of the deeper philosophical questions in public education. What role does the state and family play in making sure children have an environment that is both secure and open to individual autonomy?

Exit Rights, Civic Education, and Religious Orthodoxy

This concern spills over into discussion of exit rights. Do children have a right to an education that might lead them to exit their religious group (Lester, 2004)? Might a robust civic education provide new and different lenses through which children see the world that might make their home belief system less compelling? Should public schools in a pluralist state provide individuals with the kind of education that might lead to their exit from their home faith? Should public schools refrain from a robust civic education in order to protect and allow religious ideologies to flourish? To whom does the public school primarily answer? When is a religious ideology so extreme that to accommodate it seriously undermines the ideals of the American society? These are not easy questions to address and while they are difficult questions to wrestle with in terms of identity broadly understood, they are that much more vexing when it comes to religion. The reason being that religion, unlike culture, rests on epistemological foundations that for those who identify as religiously orthodox, are exclusive, inalienable, and unchanging. Educators are mistaken in simply “conflating” religion as another aspect of culture as it “strips religion” of its “essential qualities” (Rosenblith, 2008a). This makes the project of civic education, for some, in many ways incommensurable with fostering religious identity. If the idea of a public school is, in part, to bring together people with very different visions of the good life and figure out ways forward, those who believe their very salvation hangs in the balance of one particular vision are understandably not going to be flexible in terms of tolerance and respect for a wide range of beliefs or for the very idea that public schools espouse—good citizenship hangs on an individual’s ability to respect and tolerate those with whom we disagree. In short, the problem becomes a non-starter for the most orthodox, making the civic project that much more difficult. This is of special difficulty for teachers as they seek to “navigate” the tensions between “the religiously orthodox and pluralist public schooling” (Bindewald & Rosenblith, 2015).

Religion, Schooling, and Indoctrination

One of the conflicts with integrating religion in schools is whether it is perceived as exposure or indoctrination. A suspicion of indoctrination can create angst in both the non-religious and the deeply orthodox. An extreme example of this fear occurred this past year when a father threatened a teacher because she was teaching about Islam in the class. It led to the closure of a whole school district (Robertson, 2015). If we are to have classrooms, which are filled with vibrant students who are open to critical thought, we have to move beyond the anxiety that any discussion on religion is the same as indoctrination. This is why the “trump card” of parental rights in preventing students from being exposed to materials that may conflict with private teachings is problematic (Rosenblith & Bindewald, 2014).

If educators approach religion appropriately in the classroom, it should not lead to a concern of indoctrination. Rather, it can be a tool that helps students become more religiously literate and “resist religious intolerance and bigotry and instead learn about the religious other” (Rosenblith, 2008b). Are we limiting the possibilities for educational vibrancy and civic and multicultural understanding due to an exaggerated fear of religion in the classroom? What if the reasons for teaching religion in the classroom were not an attempt of “relativizing truth” or wanting to “coax students away from the religion of their parents” but rather helping to garner “fair depictions of the other” (Rosenblith & Bindewald, 2014). Perhaps, this is the approach to religion in the classroom that the majority of society could agree to.

Within the literature, far less attention has been given to treating the problem than has been given to identifying the problem. Diana Hess and Rob Kunzman have addressed ways forward. Suzanne Rosenblith and Benjamin Bindewald have as well. Hess argues for encouraging a discussion of controversial issues in the classroom as controversy is not an “unfortunate byproduct” of democracy but rather one of its “core and vital elements” (Hess, 2004). Hess argues that these controversial conversations should be the “students’ forum” where the teachers’ views do not directly impact the discussion but are integral for the discussions chosen (Hess, 2002).

Kunzman argues for “loosening liberal boundaries” in allowing for alternative and more orthodox perspectives in classroom discussion. After all, there is no consensus on what is “reasonable” when it comes to the discussion of religion and controversial issues. A truly civic education can work against the “disenfranchisement” of religious perspectives in the public sphere (Kunzman, 2005). He also argues that there will inherently be conflict in a religiously diverse society. Instead of ignoring this, educators should teach students how to navigate these conflicts and help create a greater understanding of religious diversity (Kunzman, 2006). He suggests using activities such as role play and field experience to create a more “empathetic understanding” of the other and move students “beyond knowledge to appreciation” (Kunzman, 2006). He also suggests letting students be the “source of insider perspective” when it comes to their own religious traditions (Kunzman, 2006).

Rosenblith and Bindewald look at this issue from a slightly different angle. They explore how teachers should handle exclusive comments made by the religiously orthodox that may be offensive to other students. They use the example of a student using the Bible to justify statements against homosexuality. They suggest for teachers to not simply ignore or downplay these types of comments, but rather make the distinction regarding arguments based on reason versus those based purely on religious belief. While giving the students the freedom to discuss the issues, teachers can and often should deal with these issues “directly” and with a level of “certitude” (Bindewald & Rosenblith, 2015). In another text, they argue for “mutuality,” which is a type of middle ground between “mere tolerance” and “robust respect” (Rosenblith & Bindewald, 2014). They see this mutuality as a willingness to engage in a relationship with the religious other (Rosenblith & Bindewald, 2014). It means that differences are not necessary “resolved” or “trivialized” but rather students engage in “a process of mutual reciprocity and understanding” (Rosenblith & Bindewald, 2014). The ultimate hope is that this will lead to “to a greater realization of justice and tolerance in the larger public sphere” (Rosenblith & Bindewald, 2014).


In our increasingly diverse, global, and interdependent society, confronting, understanding, and respecting the religious other is of paramount importance. In the United States, this places a particular obligation on the public schools to rethink its role in helping young citizens understand the history, complexity, and contributions of religion historically as well as in contemporary contexts. The relationship between religion and public education is one that has been inexorably tied to politics—religious and secular politics. This has led to a relatively ineffective exploration of religion in public schools. Recognizing the direct connection between religious illiteracy and religious intolerance, one can hope that a reconceptualization of the role of religion and public schools, one that takes religion, education, democracy, and pluralism seriously is near. In treating religion, education, democracy and pluralism seriously, the public schools can come closer to fulfilling their obligations to attend at once to individual and collective goals.


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