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Religion vs. Rights: Which One Belongs In Schools?

Before the government provided formal schools and programs of education, religion had been a major part of every person’s education. As public schools started, this teaching of faiths continued with the practice of prayer before class and bible reading sessions (Burstein, 26). Were those actions taken in these classes constitutional, or did the practicing of religious activities deny people the freedom of religion guaranteed in the constitution? Many of those who find prayer and religion in school offensive say that it is a violation of their rights.

Mr. Justice Black of the United States Supreme Court, once said, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between the Church and State which must be keep high and impregnable” (Bosmajian, 7). Those in support of religious teachings in public schools see participation in theological activities as a chance to teach morals, community ethics, and peace over violence. Nevertheless, the achievement of those goals through the denial of basic rights is wrong. Today’s society is, fast paced, competitive, and based totally on equality.

Consequently, religion, whether it be denominational or not, has no place in the classrooms of today’s public schools. The reasons for this position are the establishment clause, the rulings of the Supreme Court, and the role that a school has in a community. What is stopping this process of allowing prayer and schools to combine? The establishment clause is the main cause of this roadblock. The American public seems to think that the establishment clause, or religious freedom, means that personal beliefs can be instituted any place at any time.

They feel that the courts interpretation of the clause not only takes God out of the lives of the students, but that the removal of religion also removes basic ethics and the teaching of morals (Gay, 65). This removal of ethics seems to have possibly caused the lack of respect for teachers and education as a whole. The courts say that this right’s purpose is to create a wall that will separate the church from the state and that it will not and can not fall. This clause is the rock, on which they base all their decisions on, where they turn to figure out whether a violation of rights had occurred.

To put this idea into more simple terms, the purpose of the anti-prayer position is that the government does not want to specifically support, show preference of, or exclude and particular religion or denominational sect (Burstein, 28). The United States Judicial system is the basic battleground for all constitutional matters. These judges interpret the rules and laws of the constitution in what they view to be meaning of the laws. The debate of religion in public schools, government, and communities is no stranger to these courtrooms.

In the past 50 years there has been over twenty separate court cases dealing with a different aspect of religion in schools. One of the earliest cases of religion and school reached the Supreme Court in 1948. While Ms. McCullum was starting her case against the Champaign Board of Education, it was in her interest to bring to attention that the taxpayers’ were paying religious leaders to teach their beliefs in school classrooms. However, the taxpayers’ money was not being used as payment for the services of religious leaders, but only for the running of the school during these teachings (Gay, 65).

McCullum’s whole argument was that even if parents consented to the teaching of religion, that school funds were still supporting the religion classes. Kids who did not take theology took an extra class. These extra classes, plus the religion classes, used tax payers’ money. The Supreme Courts decision made it clear that the use of school time and property to educate students in religious worship was strictly forbidden (Bosmajian, 7). Another landmark case occurred in 1962.

The Regents board in New York instituted a formal prayer that was to be said at the beginning of every school day (Alley, 108). The Supreme Court found this type of prayer to be a denial in religious rights and it failed to comply with the establishment clause. The Engel decision posed as a landmark ruling and a huge step for people against prayer in public schools. The prayer set up by the Board of Regents restricted students to worship a specified god, and forced them to believe that each child was dependent on this god.

The courts have ruled that verse, or sayings, that mention a god, or type of higher being, are unconstitutional in public classrooms. However, some courts have also ruled that a period of silence, instituted by the school, is also in conflict with the establishment clause. The courts had designed a three-part test to decide if any particular statue was constitutional or not. First, the law had to have some sort of secular legislative purpose, and secondly, it can not advance or inhibit religion. While lastly, the rule may not place an excessive government involvement with religion (Bosmajian, 79).

The courts found that in these moments of silence that they all suggested praying along with other things. The courts decided that this practice of morning silence’s only real purpose was to once again institute prayer into the school systems (Bosmajian, 98). Other court cases across history have also shown that no religion what so ever can be spoke or read in public classrooms. With all the laws and regulations that follow the idea of religion in schools, supporters want to know what exactly is allowed.

To help those who support religious expression, the Department of Education prepared a set of guidelines for who may do what, and when. Those wishing to pray or worship may do so individually or as groups, so long as it does not disrupt the classroom setting or any other school activities. Students may also initiate religious discussion, and read the bible as long as it takes place before or after school activities. The wearing of religious clothing or jewelry is also permissible by the guidelines set up (School, 839).

The laws prohibit teachers and the administrators of the schools from organizing prayer, theological discussions, or worshipping activities in any form. To do so would violate the establishment clause and the idea of separation between church and state. This is the golden rule regarding the role of schools in religious matters. Despite the fact that administrators can not organize religious activities, they also can not deny any or all religious groups use of the school. To do so would violate the rights of students and the groups (Gay, 60). However, the role of teachers has become more defined.

When partaking as a representative of the state, or while acting within their contractual duties, instructors may not participate, encourage, or insist upon religious activities. However, when in the lounge area or in their private office, they are free to exercise their private religious activities. Teachers, whose religion requires specific religious garb, can not have their right to do so denied, unless it causes a distraction to a student’s learning (Burstein, 33). Another area that the debate of religion in education is the teachers right to educate students in religion.

The rule regarding theological teaching is that educators may teach their students about religion, it’s role in society, about religion’s place in history, and so forth. The study of religious books and prayers is allowed as long as the historical or literary purposes of such works is communicated (Education, 100). For many years, Congress has tried to pass bills, laws, and amendments for the expressed purpose of allowing prayer in public schools. One reason congress felt such a responsibility to solve the debate was do to the public outrage of the Engle decision.

Many significant religious leaders called the decision “the most tragic in history of the United States”, “another step towards secularism”, or “this could put United State’s schools on the same basis as Russian schools” (Alley, 109). One congressional committee, under the direction of Senator Olin Johnston, gave several different proposals that they were to consider. Two suggestions were made to add an amendment to the constitution the would permit the use of prayer, the reading of the Bible, and giving the state the legislative power to create their own policies regarding questions of ethics.

Another suggestion that went under review and consideration by the congressional committee was an amendment that would allow schools to provide a time during the school day for prayer or meditation (Alley, 112). Unfortunately, those who supported school religion, none of these laws passed through Congress, but supporters keep pushing for some amendment that would allow school administrators to institute prayer again. Those few people who worked for an amendment that would allow prayer in schools are not alone.

In 1995, a poll showed that almost three fourths of the people surveyed were in favor of such an amendment. Seventy five percent of parents who had children in public school supported this type of law. In addition, seventy five percent of the parents who had children in non-public school still were in support of a prayer amendment. Of those who had no kids in school, the greater majority would have liked to see a bill allowing the use of prayer in classrooms (Education, 147). This debate between those who want prayer and the ones defending personal rights will always continue.

Those who support the concept of school prayer feel that prayer could lead to an increase in ethics and moral behavior. However, does our country have so many problems, that the basic denial of religious freedom has to occur. That is the argument of the courts and those who do not support this forcing of theological participation. Those against this action are also concerned that if total religious freedom goes to the schools, then groups like the KKK and the neo-Nazi’s would have the right to teach in school.

What would that do the ethics level? The history of this country is built on the idea that the government should not and will not control the personal beliefs of the American public. That is why the courts back up the establishment clause with every case about religion. The government wants to ensure, to the best of their ability, that this government will not favor one religion over another. The administrators and teachers of America’s children have no right to force community based beliefs on every single child that enters their school.

Perhaps, John F. Kennedy put it best in one of his speeches. “I believe in an America where the separation if church and state is absolute. Where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote. Where no church or church-school is granted any public funds or political preference. Where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. “

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