by Jeremy Leaming
We’ve heard it for decades from the Christian Right that the nation’s public schools are hostile to religion, prohibiting students from praying or engaging in other religious activities. It is rhetoric that has helped fuel the so-called culture wars. The rhetoric is also blatantly misleading.
There were a couple of U.S. Supreme court cases in the 1960s that prohibited organized religious activities in the public schools. But neither case, regardless of the shrill cries of Christian Right leaders, prohibited truly voluntary student prayer. The concept was fairly straight forward. Public school officials are government employees and the First Amendment’s establishment clause bars the government from demanding that people, including students, pray or engages in religious activity. The free exercise clause of the First Amendment provides that government must be neutral toward religion and cannot take undue action to interfere with religious practices.
So those two high court cases – Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp – did not ban religion from the schools. Students can pray in school on their own time, such as moments before a test, or with other students, as long as such activity is not disruptive of the school’s mission to teach reading, writing, math, history, and science.
Nonetheless, those high court cases have been twisted by Christian Right lobbying groups, such as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, American Family Association, and TV preachers such as Pat Robertson, to help their campaign to portray America’s public places, even limited ones like public schools, as hostile to Christianity. Government officials they often argue are bent on banishing religion and Christianity in particular, from the public square.
The misinformation has caused great confusion in the public schools about religion’s proper place. But the First Amendment Center’s Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, has spent decades trying to straighten things up.
In a piece for the First Amendment Center’s website, Haynes says progress is being made.