The subject of religion in public schools is one that has been debated vigorously and passionately. The warriors from the Right and Left fail to appreciate the facts because they are caught up in the rhetoric and have difficulty viewing this emotional topic dispassionately (Haynes, 2011). Both sides are right about one thing: this is an important subject.
The debate on religion in the public school is complicated by the fact that there are two clauses dealing with religion in the First Amendment (Warnick, 2012). The Establishment Clause, which disallows the establishment by the government of any particular religion, and the Free Exercise Clause, which prohibits the state from proscribing the practice of religion, are a source of conflict and tension. The tension stems from the fact that upholding one clause can occur at the expense of the other, and thus, the state is forced to choose between them (Department of Education [DOE], 2003; Warnick, 2012).
This constitutional strain is sufficient warrant for all educators to examine carefully the subject of religion and to examine it in the light of the constitution and of federal, state, and local regulations. To ignore it is a foolhardy action and can lead to very serious consequences for all stakeholders. Due to this conflict, the US Department of Education (DOE) has found it necessary to issue clarifications as to what is and is not permissible. One such clarification was issued in 2003 and entitled Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools (DOE, 2003).
While the constitutional issue is a powerful motivator, there are other reasons that educators must inform themselves about religious practice and belief. One of these is the fact that, despite the government’s attempts at illuminating this subject, there are still areas of ambiguity. These uncertain areas include (a) whether schools endorsing religious views if they allow student-initiated activities to involve school resources and audiences, (b) the lengths to which schools can and should go to in accommodating religious beliefs and practices, and (c) how schools can make certain that accommodations do not become endorsements nor imply such (Warnick, 2012).
In addition to the areas of ambiguity, there is the problem of religious ignorance (Giess, 2012; Haynes, 2011). There is a marked and dramatic ignorance among Americans about religious traditions including their own (Giess, 2012). Ignorance is no virtue and especially so when the opportunity to harm one’s students through intolerance and ignorance is more prevalent than ever before. The US, the predominance of the Christian religion notwithstanding, is becoming more and more diverse religiously (Gunther & Purinton, 2011). This type of ignorance is a contributor to the escalation of religious intolerance that has manifested itself in increasing numbers of hate crimes (Haynes, 2011).
Educators need to understand the...