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National organizations endorse teaching about religion in public schools.


Religion in the Public School Curriculum

“Because religion plays a significant role in history, study about religion is essential to understanding both the nation and the world. Omission of facts about religion can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant.” i

A statement agreed upon by seventeen organizations including: National School Boards Association, American Association of School Administrators, National Council for the Social Studies, American Federation of Teachers, Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Religion in the Public Schools

“The history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture) as literature (either as a separate course or within some other existing course), are all permissible public school subjects. It is both permissible and desirable to teach objectively about the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries.” ii

From Religion in Public Schools, a document drafted by twelve organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

NEA Resolution I-22: Freedom of Religion 

The National Education Association “believes that schools should teach the rights and responsibilities associated with the freedom of and from religion, the religious heritage and diversity of the United States, respect for the beliefs of others, and the historical and cultural influences of various world religions.” iii

i. “Religion in the Public School Curriculum: Questions and Answers,” Finding Common Ground (First Amendment Center) 2001, p. 90
ii. “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law” (1995)
iii. 2019-2020 NEA Resolutions;


Engagement of Religion as an Academic Asset

Welcoming and engaging students’ deepest beliefs as they apply to learn is academically helpful and can be done in ways that are very appropriate for public schools.

Religious Students in Your Schools

The majority of your students come from homes with religious backgrounds. Yet, this is often not acknowledged or affirmed in a public school environment.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that 80 percent of high school seniors indicate that religion plays a role in their lives. It said that 55 percent consider their faith as “very important” or “pretty important.” Only 20 percent indicate that religion is not essential in their lives. 10

In 2009 (the latest data), the NCES reported that 51 percent of ninth-grade students participate in after-school religious youth groups or religious instruction. This ranked second only to sports (55 percent). 11

In its 2010 publication, Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported that 57 percent of teens attended religious services at least two times a month. Forty-four percent do so weekly. 12

However, rather than tap into this valuable asset for academic and behavioral success, public education today has unnecessarily disconnected students from their spiritual lives while at school. Too many educators communicate that religion isn’t welcome in class. Even when schools acknowledge students have a right to express their faith, they too often merely tolerate it rather than encourage it and affirm it.

Research about the positive influence of religion on student performance doesn’t mean we should promote any particular religion in schools. But neither do we need to treat religious people and the faith community in our school districts like annoying neighbors down the street who are tolerated but not welcomed.

We do students a grave disservice when we do not encourage them to integrate what they at least claim is important in their lives with how they live. Unfortunately, for too many students, there is a disconnection between what they say is important in their lives and how they conduct themselves. And today’s schools make it easy for them to live with that disconnection. In fact, in the name of the “separation of church and state,” schools even encourage that disconnection!

Medical researchers warn us that we do that at our students’ peril. In conjunction with the YMCA USA and the Institute for American Values, Dartmouth Medical School assembled a distinguished panel of medical doctors and researchers from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, UCLA, and Columbia to examine how to address the needs of students. In its report, Hardwired to Connect, the panel warned: “Denying or ignoring the spiritual needs of adolescents may end up creating a void in their lives that either devolves into depression or is filled by other forms of questing and challenge, such as drinking, unbridled consumerism, petty crime, sexual precocity, or flirtations with violence.” 13

The report concluded: “We recommend that youth-serving organizations purposively seek to promote the moral and spiritual development of children, recognizing that children’s moral and spiritual needs are as genuine, and as integral to their personhood, as their physical and intellectual needs……finding new ways to strengthen, and not ignore or stunt, children’s moral and spiritual selves may be the single most important challenge facing youth service professionals and youth-serving organizations.” 14

Public schools can welcome, affirm, and engage students’ religious values and beliefs. Doing so will not only be responsive to the faith community throughout your schools, but it will also, as the research shows, enhance students’ academic and behavioral success.

We Don’t Talk about Grandma

A friend once shared an illustration with me that highlights the absurdity some have reached regarding schools needing to be religion-free zones. He said, imagine this scenario: Johnny is doing well in school, and his teacher asks him what he thinks has made a difference in his life. Johnny responds, “Well, it’s my grandma. I love her, and she loves me. And she inspires me, and I want to please her.” Imagine if the teacher says, “We don’t talk about grandma here. Grandma isn’t appropriate for public schools.”

We all agree that would be outrageous. But that, too often, is what we do with religion. The Supreme Court addressed the idea of “separation of church and state” in the case of Lynch v. Donnelly. The Court stated: 

“The concept of a ‘wall’ of separation between church and state is a useful metaphor but is not an accurate description of the relationship’s practical aspects. The Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions and forbids hostility toward any. Anything less would require the ‘callous indifference,’ which the Establishment Clause never intended.” 15

Most educators would be surprised to learn that the Supreme Court assumes public school students are singing Christmas carols at school. In Lynch v. Donnelly, while ruling that a public display of a crèche was constitutional, the Court commented:

“It would be ironic if the inclusion of the crèche in the display, as part of a celebration of an event acknowledged in the Western World for 20 centuries, and in this country by the people, the Executive Branch, Congress, and the courts for two centuries, would so ‘taint’ the exhibition as to render it violative of the Establishment Clause. To forbid the use of this one passive symbol while hymns and carols are sung and played in public places, including schools, and while Congress and state legislatures open public sessions with prayers, would be an overreaction contrary to this Nation’s history and this Court’s holdings.” 16 (emphasis added) 

In the case of Abington School District v. Schempp, which prohibited mandatory daily Bible reading in school, the Court endorsed reading the Bible in public school for academic purposes:

“[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.” 17

In the case of Stone v. Graham regarding the display of the Ten Commandments, the Court ruled that arbitrary posting of the Commandments was unconstitutional but clarified that: “This is not a case in which the Ten Commandments are integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.” 18

Freedom of Religious Expression

Educators must create a faith-friendly environment that welcomes students to express their religious values in word and deed. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education has issued guidelines since 1995 (most recently in 2020) clarifying students’ freedom to express their faith:

Data source:

  1. Students can pray, read their Bibles or other religious materials,
    and talk about their faith at school.
  2. Students can organize prayer groups and religious clubs, and
    announce their meetings.
  3. Students can express their faith in their classwork and homework.
  4. Students can go off campus to have religious studies during school
  5. Students can express their faith at a school event. 19

One of the simplest ways to create a more faith-welcoming environment is to inform students and their parents of the U.S. Department of Education guidelines. This sends a strong message to the faith community that your schools respect their religious faith and will protect its expression. It also heads off possible complaints from those parents who think public schools must be religion-free zones. Suppose everyone understands the federal government’s guidelines. In that case, teachers won’t be overly repressive in banning religious expression, and non-religious parents won’t feel the need to “sound the alarm” just because a student talks about his faith in class. Educators can avoid the extremes of censorship and suppression on the one hand and endorsement and proselytizing on the other hand. Everything we need to fix the problem is already available in academic standards and legal codes. We don’t need any new laws. We need a new vision for what must be done and how to do it. I am not talking about offering an elective course on the Bible as literature (though that is good). I am not talking about beginning the day with teacher-led prayer in class (though 34 states have laws regarding moments of silence at the beginning of the day). I am not talking about what could be described as symbolic gestures that acknowledge Christianity (like prayer at school board meetings or graduation ceremonies). I am talking about intentionally and robustly improving how schools engage their students’ religious orientation.

Affirmation without Endorsement

When students express faith-based ideas, teachers can affirm students’ faith without endorsing it. Teachers should become comfortable with and adept at using faith-affirming phrases. For example, after a student shares a viewpoint based on their religious faith, the teacher might respond with:

  • “Thanks for sharing. That’s really interesting.”
  • “I see your point. You should incorporate it in your essay.”
  • “I like that you’ve connected your faith with the author’s point in the book.”

These kinds of responses reinforce to the student that he or she is thinking deeply and connecting life to learning.

Educators cannot endorse any religious faith, but it is legally and educationally sound to affirm students’ religious orientation. However, for teachers to feel comfortable doing this, school leaders need to change educators’ understanding of what can be done in the classroom. Too many educators think their classrooms must be religion-free zones, or at best, they tolerate its expression, but don’t encourage it.

Therefore, one of the primary tasks school leaders need to do is work to change the assumptions that educators live by in their classrooms. In addition, educators must realize that engaging students’ religious values in the learning process are a legal and academic asset.

Creating a School Culture of Inclusion

To engage students’ existing religious orientation as a learning asset for academic and behavioral success, we need to foster an inclusive rather than exclusive school culture:

  1. Exclusive classrooms hinder students from expressing their faith. Inclusive classrooms have teachers who know students’ religious freedoms and then explicitly inform students of those freedoms each year.
  2. Exclusive classrooms censor religious holidays as annual distractions that must be sanitized. Inclusive classrooms acknowledge the social and cultural beauty of religious holidays that are reflective of the majority of their students, their families, and their community.
  3. Exclusive classrooms reflect the false assumption that they must be religion-free zones. Inclusive classrooms occur when teachers understand that
    there are academic and behavioral advantages to intentionally making their classrooms faith-friendly places.Now you have some idea where to begin. And together, the school community and the faith community can raise a generation of young people who will create a better tomorrow for themselves, America, and the world.

None of this is illegal. None of this endorses a religion. None of this is inappropriate. All of this will help your schools give back to the faith community in your district. It says to them, “You trust us with your children, and we value what you have poured into their lives. We won’t ignore it; we will welcome it. We won’t oppose it; we will affirm it.” In the process, it will produce academically and ethically stronger students. Earlier I asked you what your schools do for the faith community.

Now you have some idea where to begin. And together, the school community and the faith community can raise a generation of young people who will create a better tomorrow for themselves, America, and the world.

  1. Horwitz, I.M. (2018, March 1). The Abider-Avoider Achievement Gap: The Association Between Religiosity and GPA in Public Schools. Graduation School of Education, Stanford University.
  2. Jeynes, William (2015). A Meta-Analysis of Factors that Best Reduce the Achievement Gap. Education and Urban Society, 2015, Vol. 47(5) 523–554
  3. Schottenbauer, Michele A.; Spernak, Stephanie M.; Hellstrom, Ingrid (2007). Relationship between family religious behaviors and child well-being among third-grade children. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, Vol. 10(2). pp.191-198
  4. Sikkink, David, and Edwin I. Hernandez (2003). Religion matters: Predicting school success among Latino youth. Institute for Latino Studies, University of Notre Dame.
  5. Toldson, Ivory A.; Anderson, Kenneth Alonzo (2010). The Role of Religion in Promoting Academic Success Among Black Students, Journal of Negro Education, Vol 79(3), pp.205-213.
  6. Lance Erickson and James Phillips (2012). The Effect of Religious-Based Mentoring on Educational Attainment: More than Just a Spiritual High? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51(3):568-687
  7. Linda D. Loury (2004). Does Church Attendance Really Increase Schooling? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43:1; 119-127
  8. Margarita Mooney (2010). Religion, College Grades, and Satisfaction among Students at Elite Colleges and Universities. Sociology of Religion 71:2 197-215
  9. Fulgham, Nicole Baker (2014). Public Schools: Christians Are Part of the Solution. Barna Group, August 26, 2014.
  10. Aud, S., KewalRamani, A., and Frohlich, L. (2011). America’s Youth: Transitions to Adulthood (NCES 2012-026). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. p.112
  11.  U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (NCES 2012-046). Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study; Table E-16-2; p.81
  12. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2010). National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XV: Teens and Parents, Columbia University, p.C-6
  13. Institute for American Values (2003). Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities. p.31
  14. Ibid. p.49
  15. Supreme Court of the United States; Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)
  16. Supreme Court of the United States; Lynch v. Donnelly
  17. Supreme Court of the United States; Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963)
  18. Supreme Court of the United States; Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980)
  19. U.S. Department of Education (2020). Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.