Why Religion DOES Belong in Public Schools: 2 Objections DeBunked
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In no way should you be permitted to teach about your religion in schools in any aspect or manner, EVER. Your religion is a personal choice and has nothing to do with education!
Please do not push religion onto students at a public school. Your goal should not be to show them Christ. Your goal should be a good education without any religious bias.
Any time I put faith/religion and public schools in the same post here at Teach 4 the Heart, I get a variety of comments like these ones by Abe & Kayley.
Some are nicer than others (Abe also compared “scary Christian zealots” to Nazis and Charles Manson), but their point is the same – not only is religion not allowed in the public schools, but it would be wrong to include it.
Notice that there are two different things being discussed here. Not only what is legal but what is right.
Next week we’re going to going to get into the nitty-gritty of what is legal in a public school and what is not, and you might be surprised how much religion actually is allowed in the public school classroom.
But before we get there, we have to answer the very real question about whether or not religion should be allowed in the public schools. In other words, is it right, moral, or ethical to bring the topics of religion or God into the classroom?
Now we can easily understand why unbelievers may answer with an emphatic NO! But often well-meaning Christian teachers also get drawn into believing that their God has no place in public life. And many more are, at best, confused about the whole thing.
Typically, these Christians teachers (maybe you’re one of them) have two big concerns about religion in the public schools. They are 1) the restrictions of separation of church and state and 2) the idea that public schools should be neutral.
Let’s dive into each of these objections with the goal of answering not whether or not religion is allowed in the classroom (we’ll get to that next week) but if it should be.
Two Main Objections to Bringing Religion into Public Schools
Objection #1 The first amendment guarantees separation of church and state. Therefore, religion in the public schools is unconstitutional
This is simply false.
For many reasons.
Sorry, I know that’s blunt. But those who argue this way simply don’t know their history – or what the first amendment says. So here’s why this argument doesn’t hold water….
- The First Amendment says nothing about keeping religion out of the government. In fact, it guarantees the free exercise of religion.
The first amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
As you can see, the First Amendment says nothing about separating church and state. Instead, it tells Congress that it cannot pass any laws that prohibit religious freedom in any way. It 100% guarantees religious freedom.
But what about when it prohibits Congress from “respecting an establishment of religion.” That’s where it’s saying church and state have to be completely separate, right?
Not so much.
You see, this phrase originally meant that the U.S. government is not allowed to establish a state religion or to favor one denomination over the others. Remember that in England the Church of England was the official state church. And many colonies had even established their own official denomination before they became states.
Since Christianity was widely believed and practiced by the majority of the population at the time our nation was established, many were hoping that the government would, indeed, establish Christianity as the official religion of the country.
But as you can imagine, each denomination thought that their particular brand of Christianity should be the official religion. Which, in fact, would infringe on the religious liberties of everyone else.
Our Founding Fathers foresaw this problem. And because they believed religious freedom to be an inalienable right – given by God and which the government would never have the right to take away, they guaranteed not only that the government wouldn’t prohibit the free exercise of religion but also that they would not play favorites with any particular established religion.
So where did “separation of church and state” come from? I’m glad you asked….
The phrase “separation of church and state” first appeared in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, in which he assured the Danbury Baptists that the government would never interfere with the free exercise of religion.
This article here explains the whole situation extremely well, but to give a few highlights in explanation:
*The Danbury Baptists had original written to Jefferson congratulating him on his Presidency but expressing concern that since the First Amendment promised protection for the free exercise of religion, this implied that religious freedom was given by government (and thus able to be taken away by government) as opposed to being God-given and thus not able to be taken away. They worried that one day the government might try to regulate religious expression. (Hmmmm…seems they were on to something.)
“Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific. . . . [T]herefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.” 
*Thomas Jefferson understood and shared this concern and spoke often about how the government should not and may not interfere with the free exercise of religion. He makes clear the prevailing concern of his day and the need for the “establishment clause” in his statements to Benjamin Rush (another signer of the Declaration of Independence) here:
[T]he clause of the Constitution which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes and they believe that any portion of power confided to me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly. 
*So when Jefferson wrote back to the Danbury Baptists, he used strong language to assure them that the federal government would never interfere with or limit religious freedom.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
Oh how sad he would be to hear how his words were misinterpreted & twisted by the Supreme Court in the past 70 years. When taken in context and compared with his other writings, there can be no way to believe that he meant that government should forcibly keep religion out of its schools.
- The Founding Fathers clearly intended that religion (and Christianity in particular) be openly taught in the public school system.
Our early leaders not only relied heavily on the Bible for the writing of the Constitution but they also integrated it into almost every aspect of the government and the public sphere.
A quick tour of Washington, D.C. will reveal Scriptures engraved on almost every building and prominently depicted throughout the Capitol.
And it wasn’t just a formality. The Founders believed that religion – and the Bible in particular – were absolutely necessary for a free society to function. They had no qualms about reading the Bible, talking about it, discussing it, and even using it to impact public policy. Furthermore, they prayed extensively and even held church services in the Capitol.
Can it truly be a surprise, then, that they also believed that religion was an important part of a public school education and that the Bible must be taught in schools?
In fact, they believed the public schools must focus on three areas: religion, morality, and knowledge. That if religion was removed, morality would tumble as well. And that without religion and morality, knowledge alone would be dangerous.Never heard this before? Don’t take my word for it. Let’s hear it from their own mouths….
The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. – Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence
The only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government… is the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by the means of the Bible. For this Divine Book, above all others, favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism. – Benjamin Rush
Our liberty depends on our education, our laws, and habits . . . it is founded on morals and religion, whose authority reigns in the heart, and on the influence all these produce on public opinion before that opinion governs rulers. – Fisher Adams, framer of the First Amendment
[I]f we and our posterity reject religious instruction and authority, violate the rules of eternal justice, trifle with the injunctions of morality, and recklessly destroy the political constitution which holds us together, no man can tell how sudden a catastrophe may overwhelm us that shall bury all our glory in profound obscurity. – Daniel Webster, early lawyer & Senator
Clearly if the founding fathers believed religion was key curriculum in the public schools, they did not intend the First Amendment to keep it out.
Religion in public schools is NOT prohibited by the First Amendment and was never considered unconstitutional until the 1960’s when the Supreme Court declared it to be so. (And, actually, contrary to popular belief, they didn’t declare all religion to be unconstitutional in public schools. Only the establishment of religion. But we’ll get into all that next week.)
For now, we’re discussing not what is allowed by what is morally, ethically, and historically right. And the point is that there’s absolutely no need (or viable grounds) to object to religion in the public schools because of the separation of church and state.
p.s. The First Amendment is a wonderful piece to have your students memorize in history class. It’s simple, short, and vital for them to know & understand if we intend to keep all the vital freedoms it protects.
Objection #2: Public schools are supposed to be neutral.
Whenever I talk about being a testimony for Christ in the public school system, I inevitably get pushback about how public schools are supposed to be neutral.
Now we could spend time arguing (based in part on what we have already discussed) that this premise actually isn’t as airtight as so many think. But for sake of time, let’s just go with it and assume that public schools, indeed, should be neutral.
So here’s the question: Is it truly neutral to completely ban any reference to religion? To censor any discussion of a topic that is so integral to the proper understanding of history, literature, and even our own culture that to remove it is to leave an obvious hole?
No, that’s not neutral at all.
Stick with me for a minute. In schools we try to teach students how to be good learners, good citizens, and (one day) good employees, business owners, parents, and bosses. And it’s not just about academics. We also want them to be kind, fair, honest, ethical, and understanding.
But if God & religion aren’t allowed into the picture, then we’re saying that we can teach students to be good without God. That we don’t need God to be moral. That we don’t need God to have a fulfilled life.
And that, my friend, is the very definition of secular humanism: the belief that humanity is capable of morality and self-fulfillment without belief in God.
Secular humanism is its own belief system, and thus certainly not neutral.
But secular humanism is its own worldview, or way of seeing things. Its own philosophy, its own belief system, or “religion” if you will.
If you play out these beliefs to their natural conclusion, you will see how their philosophies go way beyond “neutral.” And this is no secret. Take a look at these statements directly from the Council for Secular Humanism:
- Secular humanism is a lifestance…a body of principles suitable for orienting a complete human life. As a secular lifestance, secular humanism incorporates the Enlightenment principle of individualism, which celebrates emancipating the individual from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life.
- Secular humanism is philosophically naturalistic. It holds that nature (the world of everyday physical experience) is all there is, and that reliable knowledge is best obtained when we query nature using the scientific method. Naturalism asserts that supernatural entities like God do not exist, and warns us that knowledge gained without appeal to the natural world and without impartial review by multiple observers is unreliable.
- Secular humanists hold that ethics is consequential, to be judged by results. This is in contrast to so-called command ethics, in which right and wrong are defined in advance and attributed to divine authority. “No god will save us,” declared Humanist Manifesto II(1973), “we must save ourselves.” Secular humanists seek to develop and improve their ethical principles by examining the results they yield in the lives of real men and women.
Sound familiar? You bet!
But neutral? Most certainly not!
The public school system is steeped in secular humanism. It is ingrained in the curriculum, the culture, the language.
And it is not neutral.
So what am I trying to say?
My point is that if we could truly just not talk about God and thus be neutral in the public school, then maybe that idea would be worth debating.
But that’s not what’s happening.
Instead, students are being indoctrinated into a secular humanistic worldview. They are being taught a belief system.
And as if this mockery of neutrality were not enough, to make matters worse, the belief system they’re being taught is 100% untrue.
So I’m tired of being told that Christian teachers need to check their faith at the door and be “neutral.”
Because the system certainly isn’t.
And if we try to be “neutral,” what we really are doing is embracing and furthering the cause of secular humanism. We’re participating in the indoctrination, helping to shove an untrue and dangerous belief system down our students’ throats.
It’s simply impossible to be truly neutral. So maybe we should stop trying.
So where does this leave us? Am I saying you should get up in your classroom and start teaching students that Jesus is the only way to heaven? Absolutely not – not unless you’re looking for a creative way to quit.
We just needed to clear these arguments out of the way so we can talk next week about the legal & ethical ways you are allowed to bring up God and religion in your classroom.
Hopefully now we can talk without any lingering doubts in the back of your mind that by bringing up religion you’re somehow being a “scary Christian zealot” somehow comparable to the Nazis and Manson.
Because you most certainly are not.
Know other teachers who are struggling with these questions? Share this article with them now!
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