Can K-12 Schools Protect Religious Freedom alongside Secular Humanism?

By Matthew Lynch

A balance between the right for religious freedom and respect for human secularism in the schools may, at first glance, seem to be a monumental task.  But, like most issues, respect for the perspective of our fellow humans will go a long way toward easing the tensions.

The perception among many Christian groups that public schools propagate secular humanism is more than just a superficial belief. The public school as a site of secular humanism is very controversial, with a plethora of issues that find their way into many aspects of schooling, including the curriculum.  In 1925, it was illegal to teach the theory of evolution.  After John Scopes, a biology teacher, was charged with breaking a Tennessee state law by teaching the theory of evolution to students, many states moved to have both evolution and creationism taught in public schools rather than banning the theory of evolution.

Today, efforts to have multiple views of the origin of the human race taught in public schools have not subsided. Debates take place on whether evolution and intelligent design should be taught in public schools alongside each other, or whether evolution should be taught alone. How humankind came into existence is certainly not the only issue pitting religion against secularism, but it is a prominent example of the types of issues faced.

Respecting non-religious beliefs, too

I believe that allowing students religious freedom without jeopardizing the rights of the secular students is part of ethical teaching.  In fact, the prospect of religious freedom has been accorded with newer heights post the introduction of the No Child Left Behind legislation.  The legislation clearly says that unless a school district adheres to the guidelines of the state, and does not object to the practice of constitutionally protected prayer recitation in public schools, the district is not entitled to federal funds.  This has made schools more receptive to addressing the issue of religious freedom and consequently has parents happy too.

By contrast, a number of court cases have essentially removed the religious presence from school activities where participation is expected (Engel v. Vitale; Abington School District v. Schempp; Lee v. Weisman). 

To date, extracurricular religious clubs operating in American public schools remain legal in the eyes of the law.  While a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did contest the decision to uphold extracurricular religious clubs in one case, the Supreme Court decided that the existence of these clubs in American public schools is acceptable. As a result, under the Equal Access Act, there is nothing unlawful in schools providing a venue for student religious groups for their meetings.

In addition, the White House has issued directives designed to settle the matter, although contention continues between those who believe public schools have become anti-religious and are promoting secularism, and those who are opposed to schools teaching a religious point of view remains.  Nonetheless, these guidelines have succeeded in finding a new common ground between religious expression and religious freedom and have done much to correct the perception that schools are hostile to religion.

The issue surrounding religious freedom in the school will persist and will always be a hotly contested subject.  However, by continuing to look for a common ground and by respecting the issue on both sides—progress will continue.

What do you think?  Are we making progress when it comes to religious freedom in public schools?


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