Religious Liberty

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” — these words mark the beginning of the Bill of Rights, establishing what has become known as the separation of church and state. For many educators who have become sensitized to the diversity of religious beliefs of their students and concerned about the potential for lawsuits, that separation has translated into creating “religion-free zones” in public schools. Yet by effectively removing all mention of religion from students’ education, educators are left with a narrow secular lens with which to view literature, social studies, art and music. At the same time, administrators and teachers run the risk of violating students’ rights due to limited understanding and misapplication of this most fundamental cornerstone of American democracy.

The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly indicated that public school education may include teaching about religion, stating “neutral,” as required by the establishment clause, does not mean favoring secularism. At its root, religious freedom means freedom of conscience. In the most diverse religious country in the world, public education plays a critically important role in sustaining this particular freedom. As tempting as it may be to avoid the issue of religion altogether, the reality is religion — how people see and view the world — needs to be taken seriously for civic purposes.

In fact, a diverse group of twenty-four leading educational and religious organizations agreed that “ignoring religion was neither educationally sound nor consistent with the First Amendment.” Following much discussion and debate, these organizations forged a statement of principles titled Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy. Principle IV states: “Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.”

Recognizing the challenges inherent in addressing religious liberty in public schools, Five Freedoms Network member and First Amendment Center Senior Scholar Charles Haynes and pre-eminent First Amendment lawyer Oliver Thomas offer an extensive sourcebook to implementing these principles in Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools.

In Europe, fifty-six countries have agreed to abide by the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching About Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools. Initiated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the Toledo Guiding Principles are framed in human rights, recognizing religious diversity in schools and society, and even diversity within religions.

Both resources stress the importance of rights, responsibilities, and respect as a framework for inclusive dialogue. Both also emphasize the critical role of teachers in the facilitation and guidance of learning and discussion religions, articulating the expectation that teachers “may not exploit their position as teachers to influence the beliefs of their pupils.”

The Freedom Forum Institute provides a wealth of additional resources, including Charles C. Haynes’s overview of Religious Liberty in Public Schools. The Freedom Forum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center offers an additional selection of resources and materials, such as Textbooks & Lessons developed by Charles C. Haynes and various educational partners.   The Five Freedoms Project offers additional resources and lesson plans.