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Social Philosophy

Religious Education in the Public Schools

Julia J. Bartkowiak

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ABSTRACT: Recently, several authors have cited traditional liberal principles to argue that religious education must be offered in public schools in the United States of America. These authors claim that exposure to a variety of religious beliefs and traditions is a necessary means to attaining the two goals of providing children with "open futures" and encouraging tolerance of religious diversity. This paper contends that these arguments are seriously flawed, and provides reasons which demonstrate that, in practice, these two goals cannot be accomplished by religion courses in the public schools. Additionally, mandatory religion courses in the public schools appear to be unconstitutional and infringe on parental rights and freedom of religion. Consequently, the goals of a liberal state are best achieved by not offering religious education in the public schools.

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In recent debates, many participants have relied on liberal principles to favor the introduction of religious education classes at the secondary, and sometimes even the elementary, level in the public schools in the United States of America. I will argue that the public school systems of liberal democratic states should not engage in religious education. By critically examining common arguments for the view that the public schools should, or must, offer religious studies courses, I intend to show that these arguments are seriously flawed because proponents do not consider the distorted and harmful ways in which such courses are likely, in practice, to be taught. Additionally, I will argue that those proponents who believe that such courses should be mandatory are requesting a program of study that is both inconsistent with recent Supreme Court decisions and unjustifiably infringes on parental rights and freedom of religion.


Individuals who favor religious education in the public schools often assume that such courses would advance liberal values. These liberals rely on two common arguments regarding the envisioned goals of such courses. The first argument suggests that exposure to a wide range of religious views is in the best interests of children. (1) Such exposure is claimed both to present children with an important range of alternative world-views and to prevent parents from indoctrinating their children. Proponents believe that, compared to being provided with a monolithic religious upbringing which "constricts children's future possibilities," (2) it is in the child's interest to be offered a wider range of options which they can choose between as they mature; to have an "open future." In other words, proponents of this view argue that, while parents have a right to provide training and grounding for their children in a particular religion, the liberal state may have an interest in providing children with exposure to a wider range of religious views than those provided or endorsed by their parents.

Although I would agree that narrowly defining any child's future might not be in her best interest, it does not follow that children must be able to choose from many, or all, available options. Garvey has pointed out that there are two problems with the "open futures" argument. First, when the child becomes an adult, and "...finally gets around to choosing, he will be guided by values, talents, and propensities that are themselves largely the result of parental influences." (3) Thus, proponents cannot simply assume that the State has an obligation to provide children a wide range of options, since it is unlikely that this provision will have a dramatic effect on children's choices for their future. The second problem is that:

Autonomy is an ideal just as knowledge, power, virtue, and the service of God are ideals. Each states a certain view of what people ought to be like, of how they can best live their lives. Adults do not all subscribe to the same ideal, and courts should not require children to. (4)

Garvey accurately claims that providing children with a wide range of options is not a value-free goal. Additionally, all citizens do not share this goal, and it would not be in the State's interest in many cases. For example, the Liberal State would be under no obligation to provide children a wide range of political systems from which they may choose in adulthood; such options are not required and could prove destructive to a democracy. Proponents of the "open future" view must address these objections, and it is not clear that an adequate response can be developed.

An important assumption of the "open future" argument is that lack of choices about religious views results in significant harm to the child. Based on the traditional liberal view that State interference is legitimate when there is harm to others, proponents claim that mandating religious education in the public schools is within the government's authority. However, invoking this principle does resolve this issue. Many parents believe that exposure to other religious views will involve serious harm to their children. Arguments which rely on the liberal view of preventing harm must accept that such parents, at least from their own perspectives, have reason for denying their children access to alternative religious views. These opposing sides, both of which rely on this principle, seem unlikely to agree on who has correctly identified the "true" harm. Other than rejecting particular religious views as false, I see no way to resolve this disagreement. Consequently, a religiously neutral State cannot effectively use this traditional liberal principle to settle the matter.

The second liberal argument for religious studies courses in public schools appeals to the interests of the Liberal State. Proponents suggest that a well-functioning liberal state, especially one with a diverse population, requires citizens who are respectful and tolerant of a wide range of world-views and ways of life. Since religious differences are an important and defining aspect of the views and ways of life espoused by various individuals, exposing children to a wide range of religious views would be an important step toward the cultivation of religiously tolerant citizens. Proponents also point out that intolerance of religious differences has been the source of serious political conflicts within, and across, nations, leading not only to war but also to civil unrest and the suppression and oppression of religious minorities. They believe that it is in the Liberal State's interest to encourage tolerance, and religious education in the public schools is believed to be an effective means of satisfying this interest. (5)

While it may be the case that religious education might, under ideal conditions, serve the State's interest in promoting tolerance in children, there are good reasons to think that under existing conditions within many public schools such courses would fail to promote tolerance. Exposure to a variety of views, by itself, does not automatically result in tolerant children. If children are to learn tolerance, exposure to others' religious views must be positive. Children can easily be taught to criticize the practices of others and become less tolerant when the exposure they have to the religious views of others is one that finds fault with such beliefs. Teachers can easily fail to make exposure to religions positive. If teachers have dogmatic religious views or even views that are opposed to all religious beliefs, they may teach about religions in a derogatory manner.

This kind of undermining of some, or all, religious views can occur even in settings that have a standardized curriculum. The teacher's intonation, gestures, presentation of material, and suggestions during class cannot be closely monitored, and these methods of inducing criticism can easily undermine the purpose for which the course was intended. This is especially problematic in those public schools in which most of the children within the class and the majority of the community share the teacher's religious views. Under such conditions, a teacher who is not providing positive exposure will only reinforce the children's own prejudices and this teacher would be unlikely to face strong sanctions from school officials or the community.

Another serious concern is that teachers, despite good intentions to promote tolerance and understanding, may teach religion courses badly. Such courses will be successful only if teachers are well informed about, and familiar with, the religious traditions of the world. In practice, many (perhaps most) teachers in the United States do not have this knowledge. Although a few states have a certification for teaching about religion, these certifications are typically for a teaching minor. (6) Consequently, the teachers in most public schools do not have the training to teach a religion course, and we can safely assume that many secondary school teachers did not receive an education in the world's religions as part of their own schooling. Their ignorance could cause them to inadvertently make the unfamiliar traditions sound bizarre and contemptible. Ignorance of the religions of the world also could cause the teacher to be able to more skillfully explain the views of, and answer questions about, the familiar/dominant religions. Students in such a class may be left with the sense that the views of the unfamiliar religions were strange, arbitrary, or immoral compared to those of the more familiar religious traditions. Such classes will not encourage tolerance of others. These practical concerns suggest that the liberal goals envisioned by proponents of religious education in the public schools are unlikely to be achieved. Before implementing religious education in the public schools, there must be clear evidence that this area of State interference is a legitimate one, that the goals are desirable, and that the goals can be accomplished by the suggested means. Liberals who favor these courses have not provided this evidence.


In 1963, with the Schempp/Murray decisions, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional for public schools to conduct morning prayers. This decision followed the 1948 McCollum ruling that banned religious education classes within public schools that promoted particular religious views. However, neither of these rulings prohibited the discussion of religion in the public schools. Instead, the majority and concurring opinions in Schempp/Murray distinguished between teaching about religion and the teaching of religion. They deemed only the latter unacceptable and encouraged the former. The Justices declared that while the constitutional right to freedom of religion does not allow religious practices to be forced on children who attend public schools, courses which presented the religious practices of various people in a historical and comparative manner were essential to being well-educated and were constitutionally permissible.

Liberal proponents of religious education in the public schools often rely on the Supreme Court's distinction between "teaching about religion" and the "teaching of religion." Although the distinction is believed to be a clear one, with teaching about religion involving a historical and comparative approach and teaching of religion involving a dogmatic indoctrination of children, it is unable, in practice, to provide an adequate means of determining which courses would be acceptable and which would not. Whether a teacher teaches of religion or teaches about religion often depends on how religious views are taught. There are a number of ways in which a teacher could, deliberately or inadvertently, teach comparative and historical material on religions in a manner that amounts to the teaching of a particular religion. Since materials can be presented by teachers in ways that endorse one set of religious views and communicate disdain or contempt for others, teaching about religion cannot be guaranteed by insisting that the course materials are comparative and historical.

Religious education and practices in some public schools provide evidence that particular religious views are still taught. Federal courts have dealt with a number of legal challenges that demonstrate that some schools have even ignored the decisions of the Court. Consequently, in practice, there is little doubt that some teachers would use religion courses to proselytize about their own religious views. In fact, for those teachers who adhere to a religion that believes there is only one correct set of religious beliefs, there is little incentive to accept the validity of alternative beliefs or to present them as alternatives that deserve tolerance and respect. Such teachers also may believe that acceptance of alternative views can only result in a decrease in moral behavior and grave spiritual harm, and tolerance of these views would have negative consequences not only for individual children, but also for the entire society. These teachers have little reason to attempt to provide students with the type of religion course envisioned by its proponents. Instead, they might have an incentive to use such courses as a method to teach of religion. Thus, given the significant risks that a number of religion courses may engage in the teaching of religion, I believe the State's interest in ensuring that public education does not promote particular religious views would be better served by not offering religious education in public schools.


Typically, liberal proponents of religious education in the public schools have argued that these courses should be a part of a mandatory curriculum. (7) This position raises another important set of concerns. First, it seems clear that offering these courses as a mandatory part of the curriculum is unconstitutional. Previous federal court decisions have rejected mandatory courses, including sex education courses, which parents have claimed interfere with their ability to religiously educate their children. In addition, the courts have been "surprisingly consistent" in ruling that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion is not violated when public school courses are required but offer some type of exemption for religious reasons. (8) Offering mandatory religious studies classes violate these rulings.

Parental rights to determine their children's religious training may justifiably be infringed when there are serious risks to the health and well being of children. However, it is not clear that there are serious enough competing rights or interests at stake to justify the imposition of mandatory education concerning the world's religions when parents are opposed to such courses. Any competing interests, such as allowing children to have an "open future" or a liberal society's need for tolerant citizens, do not seem to clearly outweigh parental rights to religiously educate their children and are made less compelling by the fact that many of these courses would be taught in a manner that promotes dogmatism. Additionally, as Brenda Almond points out, religious education in the public schools may violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (9) She argues that people should be allowed "to bring up their children according to their own beliefs, even if to others, perhaps even to the great majority, these beliefs seem in many ways irrational or misguided." (10) Proponents of the "open future" argument have a daunting task. They must demonstrate that religious education in the public schools involves a legitimate restriction of parental rights, and that such courses do not violate the constitutional guarantee of, or human right to, freedom of religion.

Proponents also have overlooked the fact that parents may wish to exclude their children from religious education courses for two kinds of reasons. As previously mentioned, parents may deny permission for their children to attend a religion course in the belief that such a course will be harmful to the spiritual welfare of the child. However, parents who desire that their children be tolerant of others' religious views have good reason to withdraw their children from religion courses in which the teacher is unprepared or dogmatic. Such courses will do little to encourage tolerance or provide children with an "open future." In fact, a course taught by a dogmatic teacher could promote the very indoctrination that the proponents of mandatory religious education courses are opposed to, and even these proponents may object to their children's attendance in such a course.

Finally, a rejection of mandatory attendance in religious studies courses does not necessarily result in a lack of exposure to other religious views for those children who do not attend this course. In many areas of the United States today, children who are old enough to attend public schools will acquire some acquaintance with different religious views and traditions outside the classroom. This contact is even available to many Amish children who, at least, have seen that other people do not live the same style of life that is lived within their religious community.

In conclusion, I have argued that the goals of a liberal state are best achieved by not offering religious education in the public schools. However, I have not addressed the argument that existing World Religion courses ought to be banned from the public school curriculum. In fact, I believe that it is unlikely that such a ban would be legally enforceable. However, my position does support the view that, in those schools where such a course is already a part of the curriculum, parents, for both legal and moral reasons, must be allowed to exempt their children in much the same manner as they currently can refuse to allow their child to attend sex education classes. What I have demonstrated is that liberal arguments which claim courses in the world's religions either should be implemented in public schools or that these courses, if encouraged, will provide a valuable means of attaining the goals of a liberal state are seriously flawed. Instead, in order to maintain peace and allow for religious freedom, public schools should not offer religious education within their curriculums.

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(1) For a detailed example of this view, see Hugh LaFollette, "Freedom of Religion and Children" in Rosalind Ekman Ladd (ed.), Children's Rights Re-Visioned (Wadsworth, 1996), pp.159-169.

(2) Laura Purdy, "Schooling" in Children's Rights Re-Visioned, op cit., p.155. General arguments addressing the "open future" of the child can be found in: Tibor R. Machan, "Between Parents and Children" in Personal Autonomy and the Child, pp. 16-22; and Michael S. Pritchard, Reasonable Children: Moral Education and Moral Learning (University of Kansas Press, 1996), pp. 96-7.

(3) John H. Garvey, "Freedom and Representation," in Diana Tietjens Meyers, et al. (eds.), Kindred Matters: Rethinking the Philosophy of the Family (Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 188.

(4) Ibid.

(5) For an example of this view, see: Laura Purdy, op. cit. or Stephen Macedo, "Multiculturalism for the Religious Right? Defending Liberal Civic Education," in Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 29, No. 2, 1995, pp. 223-238.

(6) Charles R. Kniker, Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools (Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, Fastback 224, 1985), p. 15.

(7) See LaFollette and Macedo, op. cits.

(8) Eugene T. Connors, Religion and the Schools: Significant Court Decisions in the 1980s (Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, Fastback 272, 1988), pp. 31-36.

(9) Brenda Almond, "Education and Liberty: Public Provision and Private Choice," in Children's Rights Re-Visioned , op. cit., pp. 137-138.

(10) Ibid, p. 145.

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