Religious Education in the Public Schools
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.
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.
LIBERAL ARGUMENTS FOR RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
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...