The First Amendment
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Religion and public schools

From the Protestant establishment to the clash of secularism

By Bruce T. Murray
Author, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

Who ‘kicked God out of the public schools?’
“Textbooks were largely silent about religion by the time we got to the 1960s.”
– Charles C. Haynes

The issue of religion in public schools has left a long trail of court cases and continues to be a prime area of conflict in battles between church and state.

“Why do people go to such great lengths to put the Ten Commandments on the classroom wall and hold prayer during football games?” posited Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “Because they think that’s all that’s left. After so many decisions in which religious Americans felt excluded from the public square – public schools in particular – you see deep emotion about clinging to that last vestige — the last gasp of who we are in the public arena.”

Many people blame the Supreme Court for “kicking God out of the schools” during the 1960s, but in fact religious-oriented instruction had already been largely removed from public schools long before that, Haynes said.

“Textbooks were largely silent about religion by the time we got to the 1960s,” Haynes said. “The Supreme Court was last chapter of the – ‘second disestablishment.’”

The Protestant establishment

America's first public schools reflected the values and practices of the Protestant-dominated culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Protestant world view was so prevalent at that time that few people would object to curriculum that reflected this culture, Haynes said.

In colonial America and early years of the republic, established denominations, such as the Anglican Church in Virginia and the Congregational Church in Massachusetts, received preferential treatment. Perks of establishment included public funding for congregations and requiring church membership for voting and office-holding. Between 1776 and 1833, the states did away with their religious establishments.

But disestablishment did not mean God was “kicked out” of the public schools. Far from it. Public schools continued to include prayer and other religious elements throughout most of the 19th century.

Haynes pointed out that even Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase “wall of separation,” advocated teaching about God in schools even as he denounced the teaching of sectarian beliefs. Jefferson was a deist – and thus he believed in one God, but he rejected theology.

“The world view that he thought should be put in public schools just happened to be consistent with his religion. But he didn’t see it,” Haynes said. “I emphasize this because you bump up against this all the time in public education. You bump up against people who are convinced that they know what’s best for education, and they don’t see any reason why they should be accused of promoting a particular world view.”


As the 19th century wore on, waves of immigrants – especially Catholics and Jews – changed the demographic landscape of America. For a time, Protestants insisted on keeping prayers and devotional Bible-reading in the schools as symbolic practices that reflected their faith and values. Many Catholics could not countenance sending their children to public schools in which the day began with readings from the King James Bible. The Catholic school system in America was substantially bolstered as a result of this conflict.

Protestants were were adamant that public school instruction not include Christianity from a Catholic point of view or make any mention of the pope. When the issue became a choice between “diverse” religion or no religion in the public schools, Protestants opted for the latter. No religion was better than Catholic Christianity, they reasoned. “Sectarian teaching” was thus barred from public schools.

Disestablishment in public schools was a significant turning point in U.S. history. People viewed public schools as places to socialize children and to Americanize immigrants. By secularizing schools, the Protestant establishment kept out the Catholic world view; but ironically, they also shut out their own beliefs.

“When religious groups – read Protestants – turned over their schools to the state, they did not think they were turning over their schools to the state,” Haynes said. “They thought that their schools would still be their schools. Why? Most people were Protestant. It was the culture.”

As religious diversity grew in the 20th century and society became more secular, the “Protestant consensus” began to fall apart. Some historians have called this the “second disestablishment.” By the 1960s, when the Supreme Court struck down remaining religious practices in public schools, most schools had already abandoned such practices.

Modern conflicts

Controversy over separation of church and state still finds a fertile battleground in public schools. Many First Amendment battles arise when advocates of religion attempt to reinstate religious expressions in the schools. Such attempts are usually met with stiff opposition or lawsuits.

Occasionally religious parents attack the school system as promoting a kind of secular “religion,” or a reverse indoctrination. Haynes described these conflicts as the “cartoon culture wars.” Examples include:

  • Opposition to “secular humanism”: Parents have accused schools of deliberately attempting to undermine religion by promoting a world view that belief in deity is unimportant. Specific targets include the teachings of Carl Rogers, the father of “client-centered therapy,” and Abraham Maslow, who popularized the concept of “self-actualization.”

  • Opposition to the New Age movement: In the 1980s, religious advocates accused schools of trying to brainwash students into new spiritual fads. Haynes cited one cartoonish incident in which parents accused administrators of promoting New Age philosophy through performance of a John Denver song.

  • Opposition to fantasy literature: In recent years, parents have protested the presence in schools of fantasy stories as the “Harry Potter” novels on the grounds that magical elements in their plots undermine Christianity and promote Satanism.

“When you feel left out, and you feel like your schools have been taken away from you, and your public square is no longer relevant to you, maybe you seize on these things,” Haynes said. “They are trying to get their voice in the conversation, saying, ‘If you can have all this other stuff that promotes a way of seeing the world and we’re not there, then we are going to start charging you with promoting a religion of your own.’”

A new model

Haynes said that while claims of widespread secular humanist conspiracies are exaggerated, there is a kernel of truth that critics and the media missed: If schools avoid any mention of religion, the message is religion isn’t important. If schools exclude religion, the implication is that there's something wrong with it.

Some topics, such as history and literature and the arts, are distorted when curricula avoid mentioning religion, Haynes said. For example, a U.S. history textbook that ignores the Great Awakening would not provide an accurate depiction of Colonial America.

This view is bolsterd by former Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, who, while striking down school-led Bible recitations, also wrote:

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicated that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment,” Clark wrote in the landmark case, Abington School District v. Schempp (1963).

Teaching about religion, Haynes said, is an important component of teaching civics and preparing children to live in a pluralistic society.

“This debate about how to get First Amendment rights in schools won’t go very deep and far until we step back and say, ‘How are we going to deal with the fact that there are 10 million ways of understanding the world, and how are we going to help students understand the 10 million ways? Or are we only going to allow one way, one lens for seeing all the subjects?’ This is the greatest challenge we have.”

Supreme Court Cases

Establishment Clause ‘incorporated’

In the landmark 1947 case, Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing, the Supreme Court incorporated the Establishment Clause, meaning that the words prohibiting a national religion also apply to the states. So, not only is the federal government prohibited from establishing a national religion – or anything respecting that end – but the individual states are also so prohibited.

School prayer shot down

In the 1963 case, Abington v. Schempp, the Supreme Court ruled that no state law or school board may require compulsory prayers or Bible readings, even if individual students may be excused from participating upon written request of their parents. In its dicta, however, the Court noted that public schools may teach about religion if it does so in a neutral fashion and in the context of a secular education.

Vouchers upheld

In the 2002 case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers are constitutional. As a result of the decision, parents may receive vouchers from the government in order to send their children to nonpublic schools – religious or otherwise.

Haynes said a side effect of the decision may be that public schools make a better attempt to address religious issues.
“My sense is it will motivate public schools to do better on religion and religious liberty in general if they realize the reason why many people are supporting vouchers is linked to their concern about religion and values in public schools; and how their faith is treated and how their values are treated,” he said. “We've got to rethink how we are preparing people to engage one another in the public square across their differences. Teaching about religion is only part of that.”

More cases


Evolving models of public schools

Over the arc of American history, public schools have followed the following models, according to Haynes:

  • The “sacred public school” model: From their inception until the turn of the last century, public schools in America were de facto Protestant schools.
    “The sacred public school model began to fall apart in the early in the 20th century in what some people call the second disestablishment. The Protestant consensus about public education broke down,” Haynes said.

  • The “naked” public school: When religion is excluded from public schools. Haynes said this situation arose from a misunderstanding of the First Amendment, and from the mistaken belief that that it mandates public schools to be religion-free zones.
    “Neutrality does not mean ignoring or taking out religion, but that is often the route that is taken,” he said.
    In reaction to this model, many religious parents have abandoned public education in favor of private schools or home schooling.
    “Many people are alienated from public education because their world views aren't attended to,” Haynes said. “Some people are so disaffected that they are calling for an exodus to either private schools or home-schooling.”

  • The civil public school: A model that accommodates the religious rights of its students while not attempting to impose religion on others; and one that teaches about religion when it’s appropriate to the curriculum. Haynes advocates this model.

“The civil public school model says there are many religious liberty rights that kids have in a public school. There are many ways in which religious expression is not only permitted, but protected in a public school. And there are many ways in which the government can talk about religion as long as it does so in a fair and neutral way,” he said.

First Amendment schools

Drawing from his book Finding Common Ground, Haynes provided examples of teaching religion that is permissable under the First Amendment: Common Ground

  • An academic approach: Schools may study religion as long as they don’t practice it, promote it or denigrate it.

  • Separating religion from values: Schools may teach ethical viewpoints or standards of behavior, but may not invoke religious authority in the lesson.

  • Displays: Using religious symbols and texts, such as the Ten Commandments, may be permissible as long the display is temporary and tied to a specific lesson. Attempts to permanently post the Ten Commandments have triggered First Amendment objections.

  • Teaching about holidays: Schools may recognize holidays, including Christmas, and provide secular instruction about them. Celebrating religious holidays, however, is not permitted.

Schools often celebrate the “department store” version of Christmas, Haynes said, emphasizing secular traditions such as Santa Claus, elves and reindeer. The practice can lead to distortions, such as a holiday concerts with historical themes that don’t include sacred music.

Conversely, he said Halloween is basically a secular holiday but that many school districts are rethinking the way they mark it to avoid conflicts with parents who see Halloween as pagan or satanic. Schools with devils as their mascots have faced similar objections.

Portions of this article were reported by Fielding Buck.