What is religion’s place in public schools?
Religious practice is a regular part of the day for some teens in U.S. public schools, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
About four in 10 teens (39%) say they see other students praying before school sporting events. Also, 8% of public school students report having had a teacher lead their class in prayer, an action courts have ruled is unconstitutional. And 8% say a teacher has read from the Bible as an example of literature, which courts have approved.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that use of the Bible is growing in public schools. Bible elective classes have been proposed this year in 11 states, with three states—Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia—signing bills into law, The Christian Science Monitor says.
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About 30% of students say they regularly wear jewelry or clothing with religious symbols, pray before lunch, invite other students to worship services or a youth group, or leave school during the day to participate in religious activities, according to the Pew survey. And while more than half the students report having seen a classmate being bullied, only 13% say students get teased because of their religion.
A nonprofit organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation occasionally blows the whistle on schools, districts and educators it feels have promoted religion inappropriately. In September, it criticized a Missouri district for opening faculty meetings with a Christian prayer and for a principal stressing the importance of faith with students, The Kansas City Star reported.
The group also filed a complaint about a Tennessee district where students had baptized other students on the football field after a practice, the Tennessean reported.
In 2017, the National Council for the Social Studies released new guidelines for teaching religion in schools. The council said its goal was to increase religious literacy by having students study the social and political roles that religions play in society.
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“States have passed laws urging school systems to create electives about the Bible,” Linda K. Wertheimer, author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance (Beacon Press, 2015), told District Administration in 2017. “It’s perfectly legal for a school to offer a course about—key word: about—the Bible’s history or the Bible as literature.”
And while in the Pew report, Christian students didn’t report being bullied frequently, that’s not the case for students who practice other religions, Wertheimer says. While researching her book, she found that Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh students, and other religious minorities, are bullied more often.
On the academic side, many school districts already require students to learn about the world’s religions, said Wertheimer, who visited schools across the country while writing her book.
“I did not see teachers trying to preach a particular way of thinking or particular beliefs,” she said. “Whether it was in the Bible Belt or the very secular state of Massachusetts, teachers were very clear in saying, ‘We’re going to teach you about the core beliefs of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, but we’re not going to say you should follow them.’”
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