by Edd Doerr
On 4 June 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 224 to
203 for the so-called Religious Freedom Amendment, sponsored by Rep.
Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) and more than 150 co-sponsors.
The measure fell well short of the two-thirds majority required to
pass a constitutional amendment. In fact, the 52.4% vote dropped well
below the 59.7% garnered on a similar proposal in 1971, the last time
a school prayer amendment reached the House floor. The amendment's
defeat is especially significant because it had strong backing from
the House majority leadership and was the culmination of a massive
four-year campaign led by televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian
The Istook Amendment aroused strong opposition from education
organizations, mainstream religious groups, and civil liberties
organizations because it would have embroiled school districts and
communities in prolonged, bitter, divisive conflicts over religious
activities in the classroom or at graduations, athletic events, school
assemblies, and other gatherings. In addition, the amendment's clause
against "deny[ing] equal access to a benefit on account of religion"
would have cleared the way for massive tax support of sectarian schools
and other institutions. Opponents of the amendment correctly worried
that it would weaken or wreck the First Amendment, taking the first major
bite out of the Bill of Rights since its ratification in 1791.
Two weeks before the vote on the amendment, the U.S. Commission on
Civil Rights held the first of three projected hearings on "Schools and
Religion." Most of the 16 experts who spoke at the hearing (including
this writer, I must disclose) agreed that the relevant Supreme Court
rulings and other developments have pretty much brought public
education into line with the religious neutrality required by the
First Amendment and the increasingly pluralistic nature of our
society. A fair balance has been established between the free
exercise rights of students and the constitutional obligation
The speakers attributed the current reasonably satisfactory
situation to 50 years of appropriate Supreme Court rulings plus
two specific developments: passage by Congress in 1984 of the
Equal Access Law, which allows student-initiated religious groups
or other groups not related to the curriculum to meet, without
school sponsorship, during noninstructional time; and the U.S.
Department of Education's issuance in August 1995 of guidelines
on "Religious Expression in Public Schools."
A minority of speakers at the hearing cited anecdotes about
alleged violations of studentsí religious freedom. These turned
out to be either exaggerations or cases of mistakes by teachers
or administrators that were easily remedied by a phone call or
letter. The occasional violations of student rights, like "man
bites dog" stories, are few and far between and certainly do
not point to any need to amend the Constitution.
Julie Underwood, general counsel designate for the National
School Boards Association, told the hearing that inquiries to
the NSBA about what is or is not permitted in public schools
declined almost to the vanishing point once the "Religious
Expression in Public Schools" guidelines were published.
The guidelines grew out of a document titled "Religion
in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law,"
issued in April 1995 by a broad coalition of 36 religious
and civil liberties groups.
The statement declared that the Constitution "permits much
private religious activity in and around the public schools
and does not turn the schools into religion-free zones." The
statement went on to detail what is and is not permissible in
On 12 July 1995 President Clinton discussed these issues in a
major address at - appropriately - James Madison High School in
northern Virginia and announced that he was directing the Secretary
of Education, in consultation with the Attorney General, to issue
advisory guidelines to every public school district in the country.
This was done in August.
In his weekly radio address of 30 May 1998, anticipating the June 4
House debate and vote on the Istook Amendment, the President again
addressed the issue and announced that the guidelines, updated slightly,
were being reissued and sent to every district. This effort undoubtedly
helped to sway the House vote.
The guidelines, based on 50 years of court rulings (from the 1948
McCollum decision to the present), on common sense, and on a
healthy respect for American religious diversity, have proved useful
to school boards, administrators, teachers, students, parents, and
religious leaders. Following is a brief summary.
Permitted - "Purely private religious speech by students";
nondisruptive individual or group prayer, grace before meals, religious
literature reading; student speech about religion or anything else, including
that intended to persuade, so long as it stops short of harassment; private
baccalaureate services; teaching about religion; inclusion by students
of religious matter in written or oral assignments where not inappropriate;
student distribution of religious literature on the same terms as other
material not related to school curricula or activities; some degree of
right to excusal from lessons objectionable on religious or conscientious
grounds, subject to applicable state laws; off-campus released time or
dismissed time for religious instruction; teaching civic values;
student-initiated "Equal Access" religious groups of secondary students
during noninstructional time.
Prohibited - School endorsement of any religious activity
or doctrine; coerced participation in religious activity; engaging in or
leading student religious activity by teachers, coaches, or officials acting
as advisors to student groups; allowing harassment of or religious imposition
on "captive audiences"; observing holidays as religious events or promoting
such observance; imposing restrictions on religious expression more stringent
than those on nonreligious expression; allowing religious instruction by
outsiders on school premises during the school day.
Required - "Official neutrality regarding religious activity."
In reissuing the guidelines, Secretary Riley urged school districts to use
them or to develop their own, preferably in cooperation with parents, teachers,
and the "broader community." He recommended that principals, administrators,
teachers, schools of education, prospective teachers, parents, and students
all become familiar with them.
As President Clinton declared in his May 30 address, "Since we've issued
these guidelines, appropriate religious activity has flourished in our schools,
and there has apparently been a substantial decline in the contentious argument
and litigation that has accompanied this issue for too long."
As good and useful as the guidelines are, there remain three areas in
which problems continue: proselytizing by adults in public schools, music
programs that fall short of the desired neutrality, and teaching appropriately
There are conservative evangelists, such as Jerry Johnston and the Rev.
Jerry Falwell, who have described public schools as "mission fields." In
communities from coast to coast, proselytizers from well-financed national
organizations, such as Campus Crusade and Young Life, and volunteer "youth
pastors" from local congregations have operated in public schools for years.
They use a variety of techniques: presenting assembly programs featuring
"role model" athletes, getting permission from school officials to contact
students one-on-one in cafeterias and hallways, volunteering as unpaid
teaching aides, and using substance abuse lectures or assemblies to gain
access to students. It is not uncommon for these activities to have the
tacit approval of local school authorities. Needless to say, these
operations tend to take place more often in smaller, more religiously
homogeneous communities than in larger, more pluralistic ones.
Religious music in the public school curriculum, in student concerts
and theatrical productions, and at graduation ceremonies has long been a
thorny issue. As Secretary Riley's 1995 and 1998 guidelines and court
rulings have made clear, schools may offer instruction about religion,
but they must remain religiously neutral and may not formally celebrate
religious special days. What then about religious music, which looms
large in the history of music?
As a vocal and instrumental musician in high school and college and
as an amateur adult musician in both secular and religious musical groups,
I feel qualified to address this issue. There should be no objection to
the inclusion of religious music in the academic study of music and in vocal
and instrumental performances, as long as the pieces are selected primarily
for their musical or historical value, as long as the program is not
predominantly religious, and as long as the principal purpose and effect
of the inclusion is secular. Thus there should be no objection to
inclusion on a school production of religious music by Bach or Aaron
Copland's arrangement of such 19th-century songs as "Simple Gifts" or
"Let Us Gather by the River." What constitutes "musical or historical
value" is, of course, a matter of judgment and controversy among
musicians and scholars, so there can be no simple formula for
resolving all conflicts.
Certain activities should clearly be prohibited. Public school choral
or instrumental ensembles should not be used to provide music for church
services or celebrations, though a school ensemble might perform a
secular music program in a church or synagogue as part of that congregation's
series of secular concerts open to the public and not held in conjunction
with a worship service. Sectarian hymns should not be included in
graduation ceremonies; a Utah case dealing with that subject has been
turned down for Supreme Court review. Students enrolled in music
programs for credit should not be compelled to participate in performances
that are not primarily religiously neutral.
As for teaching about religion, while one can agree with the
Supreme Court that public schools may, and perhaps should, alleviate
ignorance in this area in a fair, balanced, objective, neutral, academic
way, getting from theory to practice is far from easy. The difficulties
should be obvious. Teachers are very seldom adequately trained to teach
about religion. There are no really suitable textbooks on the market.
Educators and experts on religion are nowhere near agreement on precisely
what ought to be taught, how much should be taught and at what grade
levels, and whether such material should be integrated into social
studies classes, when appropriate, or offered in separate courses,
possibly electives. And those who complain most about the relative
absence of religion from the curriculum seem to be less interested
in neutral academic study than in narrower sectarian teaching.
Textbooks and schools tend to slight religion not out of hostility
toward religion but because of low demand, lack of time (if you add something
to the curriculum, what do you take out to make room for it?), lack of
suitable materials, and fear of giving offense or generating unpleasant
The following questions hint at the complexity of the subject. Should
teaching about religion deal only with the bright side of it and not with
the dark side (religious wars, controversies, bigotry, persecutions, and
so on)? Should instruction deal only with religions within the U.S., or
should it include religions throughout the world? Should it be critical
or uncritical? Should all religious traditions be covered or only some?
Should the teaching deal only with sacred books - and, if so, which
ones and which translations? How should change and development in all
religions be dealt with?
To be more specific, should we teach only about the Pilgrims and the
first Thanksgiving, or also about the Salem witch trials and the execution
of Quakers? Should schools mention only the Protestant settlers in
British North America or also deal with French Catholic missionaries
in Canada, Michigan, and Indiana and with the Spanish Catholics and
secret Jews in our Southwest? Should we mention that Martin Luther
King was a Baptist minister but ignore the large number of clergy who
defended slavery and then segregation on Biblical grounds?
Should teaching about religion cover such topics as the evolution of
Christianity and its divisions, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the
religious wars after the Reformation, the long history of anti-Semitism
and other forms of murderous bigotry, the role of religion in social and
international tensions (as in Ireland, in the former Yugoslavia, and in
India and Pakistan), the development in the U.S. of religious liberty
and church/state separation, denominations and religions founded in
the U.S., controversies over women's rights and reproductive rights,
or newer religious movements?
The probability that attempts to teach about religion will go horribly
wrong should caution public schools to make haste very slowly in this
area. In my opinion, other curricular inadequacies - less controversial
ones, such as those in the fields of science, social studies, foreign
languages, and world literature - should be remedied before we tackle
the thorniest subject of all.
And let us not forget that the American landscape has no shortage
of houses of worship, which generally include religious education as
one of their main functions. Nothing prevents these institutions from
providing all the teaching about religion they might desire.
The late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan summed up the
constitutional ideal rather neatly in his concurring opinion in
Abington Township S.D. v. Schempp, the 1963 school prayer
case: "It is implicit in the history and character of American
public education that the public schools serve a uniquely public
function: the training of American citizens in an atmosphere free
of parochial, divisive, or separatist influence of any sort - an
atmosphere in which children may assimilate a heritage common to
all American groups and religions. This is a heritage neither
theistic nor atheistic, but simply civic and patriotic."
Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty, is a
former social studies teacher. This article originally appeared in
the November 1998 Phi Delta Kappan magazine.
- Text of H.J. Res. 78, Rep. Ernest Istook's Religious Freedom Amendment: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any State shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."go back to the article
- Copies of the statement are available free of charge from Americans for Religious Liberty, P.O. Box 6656, Silver Spring, MD 20916.go back to the article