May 9, 2007

Religion in the Public Schools

Religion in the Curriculum

The Supreme Court’s decisions about officially sponsored religious expression in schools consistently draw a distinction between religious activities such as worship or Bible reading, which are designed to inculcate religious sentiments and values, and “teaching about religion,” which is both constitutionally permissible and educationally appropriate. On several occasions, members of the court have suggested that public schools may teach “the Bible as literature,” include lessons about the role of religion and religious institutions in history or offer courses on comparative religion.

Creationism and Evolution

Courts have long grappled with attempts by school boards and other official bodies to change the curriculum in ways that directly promote or denigrate a particular religious tradition. Best known among these curriculum disputes are those involving the conflict between proponents and opponents of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which explains the origin of species through evolution by means of natural selection. Opponents favor teaching some form of creationism, the idea that life came about as described in the biblical book of Genesis or evolved under the guidance of a Supreme Being. A recent alternative to Darwinism, intelligent design, asserts that life is too complex to have arisen without divine intervention.

The Supreme Court entered the evolution debate in 1968, when it ruled, in Epperson v.Arkansas, that Arkansas could not eliminate from the high school biology curriculum the teaching of “the theory that mankind descended from a lower order of animals.” Arkansas’ exclusion of that aspect of evolutionary theory, the court reasoned, was based on a preference for the account of creation in the book of Genesis and thus violated the state’s constitutional obligation of religious neutrality. Almost 20 years later, in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that required “balanced treatment” of evolution science and “Creation science,” so that any biology teacher who taught one also had to teach the other.The court said the law’s purpose was to single out a particular religious belief – in this case, biblical creationism – and promote it as an alternative to accepted scientific theory.The court also pointed to evidence that the legislation’s sponsor hoped that the balanced treatment requirement would lead science teachers to abandon the teaching of evolution.

Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)

Majority: Minority:
Brennan Rehnquist
White Scalia

Lower courts have consistently followed the lead of Epperson and Edwards. As a result, school boards have lost virtually every fight over curriculum changes designed to challenge evolution, including disclaimers in biology textbooks. One of the most recent and notable of these cases, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), involved a challenge to a Pennsylvania school district’s policy of informing high school science students about intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. After lengthy testimony from both proponents and opponents of intelligent design, a federal district court in Pennsylvania concluded that the policy violates the Establishment Clause because intelligent design is a religious, rather than scientific, theory.

The Kitzmiller ruling has received an unusually large amount of attention, in part because it is the first decision to address the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design. But Kitzmiller also has been noted for its forceful analysis, and the ruling is likely to be highly influential if and when courts hear other cases involving alternatives to Darwinian evolution.

Study of the Bible

Courts have also expended significant time and energy considering public school programs involving Bible study. Although the Supreme Court has occasionally referred to the permissibility of teaching the Bible as literature, some school districts have instituted Bible study programs that courts have found unconstitutional. Frequently, judges have concluded that these courses are thinly disguised efforts to teach a particular understanding of the New Testament.

In a number of these cases, school districts have brought in outside groups to run the Bible study program.The groups, in turn, hired their own teachers, in some cases Bible college students or members of the clergy who did not meet state accreditation standards.

Such Bible study programs have generally been held unconstitutional because, the courts conclude, they teach the Bible as religious truth or are designed to inculcate particular religious sentiments. For a public school class to study the Bible without violating constitutional limits, the class would have to include critical rather than devotional readings and allow open inquiry into the history and content of biblical passages.

Holiday Programs

Christmas-themed music programs also have raised constitutional concerns. For a holiday music program to be constitutionally sound, the courts maintain, school officials must ensure the predominance of secular considerations, such as the program’s educational value or the musical qualities of the pieces.The schools also must be sensitive to the possibility that some students will feel coerced to participate in the program (Bauchman v. West High School, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1997; Doe v. Duncanville Independent School District, 5th Circuit, 1995). Moreover, the courts have said, no student should be forced to sing or play music that offends his religious sensibilities.Therefore, schools must allow students to choose not to participate.


Not all the cases involving religion in the curriculum concern the promotion of the beliefs of the majority. In a number of recent cases, challenges have come from Christian groups arguing that school policies discriminate against Christianity by promoting cultural pluralism.

In a recent example, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considered a New York City Department of Education policy regulating the types of symbols displayed during the holiday seasons of various religions. The department allows the display of a menorah as a symbol of Hanukkah and a star and crescent as a symbol of Ramadan but permits the display of only secular symbols of Christmas, such as a Christmas tree; it explicitly forbids the display of a Christmas nativity scene in public schools.

Upholding the city’s policy, the Court of Appeals reasoned in Skoros v. Klein (2006) that city officials intended to promote cultural pluralism in the highly diverse setting of the New York City public schools.The court concluded that a “reasonable observer” would understand that the menorah and star/crescent combination had secular as well as religious meanings.The judicial panel ruled that the policy, therefore, did not promote Judaism or Islam and did not denigrate Christianity.

In another high-profile case, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum v. Montgomery County Public Schools (2005), a Maryland citizens’ group successfully challenged a health education curriculum that included discussion of sexual orientation. Ordinarily, opponents of homosexuality could not confidently cite the Establishment Clause as the basis for a complaint, because the curriculum typically would not advance a particular religious perspective. However, the Montgomery County curriculum included materials in teacher guides that disparaged some religious teachings on homosexuality as theologically flawed, and contrasted those teachings with what the guide portrayed as the more acceptable and tolerant views of some other faiths.The district court concluded that the curriculum had both the purpose and effect of advancing certain faiths while denigrating the beliefs of others.The county has now rewritten these materials to exclude any reference to the views of particular faiths.These new materials will be more difficult to challenge successfully in court because the lessons do not condemn or praise any faith tradition.

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