Freedom of Religion or Freedom from Religion?13 min read

What’s Happening in America?

A teacher/friend of mine shared how one of her students recently confided in her that she truly believed that she did not 

What’s Happening in America?

A teacher/friend of mine shared how one of her students recently confided in her that she truly believed that she did not matter; that if she “was to disappear, no one would notice”.  Most heart-wrenching for this teacher was not having the freedom to express her personal religious beliefs and viewpoints which she felt could have given this student a different and more positive and empowering perspective regarding her value and worth.  As a result, the conversation ended “flat” with the student still not really convinced that she mattered in this world even though my friend shared that she mattered to her.

This has deeply troubled me.  If this was not a singular happening of which I am aware, perhaps I would move on and give it no further reflection.  However, I know this is not an isolated event.  I have, therefore, paused to take time to ponder the following questions:

1) Why do teachers in public education feel they cannot express their personal religious beliefs when the laws of the land state, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”?  (1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution)

2) How did a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” [1] become a nation where a teacher who has religious beliefs is not equal to a non-religious teacher in expressing these beliefs?  How did a nation that declared “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” [2] become a nation where a teacher feels she does not have the freedom to share her beliefs in the same Creator particularly at such a time as this?

3) If we are educating our youth in the environment of promoting NO religion so that we do not promote one religion over another, isn’t that promoting atheism or humanism? [3]

4) What other choices do our children in public education have from which to choose to believe if atheism or humanism is the only environment and context of their studies?

5) If there is no religion in public education and no religion in the home, how does this affect our nation whose government was founded on Biblical principles of Judeo-Christianity?  How does this affect society?  How does this affect freedom?

6) Are we slipping from educating to indoctrinating if we are providing children in public education only one side – a non-religious one – from which to believe?

I often hear the terminology “research-based”, “evidence-based”, and “science-based” when references are made to educational studies, surveys, and assessments.  These terms drive the policies and procedures of how we educate our youth as well as the content of what we teach.  What happened to “faith-based”?            

Since 1962 when we actively began removing religion from public education [4], notice the changes in the United States from 1962 to 1980:

  • 553% increaseTeenage pregnancy, unwed girls 15-19 years of age [5]
  • 226% increaseSexually transmitted diseases [6]
  • 140% IncreaseSingle parent families [7]
  • 544% IncreaseViolence [8]

    (Yes, the study took into account the increase in population during the 1962-1980 time period.)

    Between 1980 and 2014, these stats increased further:

  • 500% IncreaseCrimes of violence such as murder, robbery, and rape (between 1980 and 2010) [9]
  • Approximately 5.5 million increase – Teenagers with a sexually transmitted disease (excluding AIDS/HIV) between 2000 and 2010 than in 1987 [10]
  • 400% IncreasePrescription drug abuse in my state of Utah from 1998 to 2008 [11] (What is the increase in your state or country?)
  • Suicide was the 2nd leading cause of death for Utah teens ages 15-19 in 2012, and the 4th leading cause of death for Utah adults ages 20-64 (Department of Health); Utah’s suicide rate had been consistently higher than the U.S. rate for the last decade.[12]  (What are the suicide stats in your state or country?)

    “To educate a man in mind and not morals is to educate a menace to society.” – Theodore Roosevelt [13]

When we removed Christianity from public education so that state / public schools would not promote the Christian religion over other religions (as per the first clause – the Establishment Clause – in the First Amendment), did we also remove a resource for teaching the moral underpinnings of our American society that was far greater than what we realized?  How well have our youth been able to resist the resultant increase of society’s ills?  How many students personally struggle with these ills, and are they able to make the most of all that public education has to offer and truly excel in school?  How many of our youth will successfully rise above the influencing increase of society’s ills and will contribute to the economic growth of their state and our nation when they graduate – IF they graduate?

What would happen if we put “faith-based” back into public education to the extent we can within the parameters of the law? Could doing this elevate our children, their future, and our nation?

For example:

1) What would happen if we reminded parents, leaders, teachers, and students throughout the nation what the First Amendment really says and what it truly means?  “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”

More than we hear the actual words of the First Amendment, we hear the popular phrase “separation of church and state” to the extent that many people think this phrase IS the First Amendment!  Hence, it has become an increasingly popular belief that we can’t say or do anything in a public school setting that is religious.  As a result, how many religious leaders, teachers, parents, and students believe they cannot pray, read the Bible, or even mention religious words such as “God”, “Jesus Christ”, or “Bible” in public schools – or in any public setting?  Most people these days fear offending someone and being sued.

Associate Justice Abe Fortas (Supreme Court Associate Justice from 1965-1969) said, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. This has been the unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years.”[14]

In addition, Associate Justice Tom Clark (Supreme Court Associate Justice from 1945-1949) stated, “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” [15]

Dr. Rod Paige, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education (2001-2005), wrote a letter to state school officials in 2003 giving guidance regarding the meaning and application of the First Amendment in the public school setting.  He wrote:

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer. [16]… As the Court has explained in several cases, ‘there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.’ [17][18]

Dr. Paige explained further, “…The First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals such as students.  Therefore, among other things, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other non-instructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities.  Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families.”

“…At the same time, school officials may not ‘compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.’ Nor may teachers, school administrators and other school employees, when acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, encourage or discourage prayer, or participate in such activities with students.” [19]

“Teachers may, however, take part in religious activities where the overall context makes clear that they are not participating in their official capacities.  Before school or during lunch, for example, teachers may meet with other teachers for prayer or Bible study to the same extent that they may engage in other conversation or nonreligious activities.” [20]

We can better enlighten the understanding of parents, leaders, teachers, and students about the real words of the First Amendment, what they truly mean, and how they actually apply to us in public education and other public settings.  If we are all on the same page, there would be less people taking offense, less lawsuits, and greater respect between those who do and those who do not believe in religion.

2) What would happen if we reassured and better informed parents, leaders, and teachers that they can teach about religion in public schools?

“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.” [21]

All of us need to be reassured that there is a difference between…

  • informing students about various beliefs vs. conforming a student to any particular belief.
  • exposing students to a diversity of religious and non-religious views vs. imposing any particular view.
  • education about all religions and non-religious beliefs vs. promoting or denigrating any religion or non-religious belief.
  • awareness of religions vs. acceptance of any one religion.
  • studying about religion vs. sponsoring the practice of religion. [22]

To summarize, there is a difference between teaching about religion from an academic standpoint vs. teaching religion from a devotional standpoint in public schools.  The First Amendment supports teaching about religion in public education from an academic standpoint.

What if we have personal religious beliefs we feel are pertinent to share with a student in the public education setting such as what my friend experienced as a teacher?  We can follow this advice:  “Many teachers guard against injecting personal beliefs by teaching through attribution (e.g., by using such phrases as ‘most Buddhists believe…’ or ‘according to the Hebrew scriptures…’).” [23]

What else can we do to put “faith-based” back into public education within the parameters of the law?

3) Can we better remind parents, leaders, teachers, and students that it is “research-based” and “evidence-based” that the United States of America was founded by men and women who believed in Judeo-Christian principles as taught in the Holy Bible?  This is true history; Americans should not hyperventilate over this fact any more than Asians, Europeans, Africans, or other nationalities hyperventilate over teaching about religion shaping their countries’ history.  Our nation’s founding and famous documents such as The Mayflower Compact, The Declaration of Independence, and The Gettysburg Address all include numerous references to a God or Creator. [24]  Our form of representative government as outlined and protected by our U.S. Constitution was based on principles of governance found in the Bible. [25]

Therefore, in this context as a critical component of American history, isn’t it lawful and important to teach basic Judeo-Christian principles which gave early Americans the hope and encouragement to carry on in their darkest hours?  (e.g.: What did “In God we trust” and “One nation under God” mean to those who founded our nation?  What character traits did they value?)

How well do our states’ History / Social Studies standards teach about these facts and principles?

“Because religion plays a significant role in history and society, 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. Failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices and concepts of the various religions makes much of history, literature, art, and contemporary life unintelligible.” [26]

In conclusion, how will our youth learn to value and protect religious freedom if they are not taught and shown by our own examples of how we can live according to all the principles of the First Amendment?  Would our children in public education shine brighter if we all did our part to include religion within the parameters of the First Amendment?  Could doing this elevate our children and their future and help make the future of our nation brighter?

We will never know unless all of us try our best to do this in our own positions of influence.

The results of doing this could be the greatest gift we give to millions of children in public education.


[1] The Gettysburg Address

[2] The Declaration of Independence

[3] Humanism: “An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.  Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.” (Definition of humanism by Google)

[4] 1962 – removal of state-school sponsored prayer; 1963 – removal of state-school sponsored Bible reading/study; 1980 – removal of posting the Ten Commandments in the classroom; 1987 – removal of the teaching of creation science

[5] Department of Health and Human Services; Statistical Abstract of the United States

[6] Center for Disease Control; Department of Health and Human Services

[7] Statistical Abstract of the United States; the Department of Commerce; Census Bureau

[8]  Ibid                 

[9] and




[13] The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty by David G. Myers; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, p. 236

[14] Ibid., p. 126; Justice Abe Fortes, Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 1969

[15] Associate Justice Tom Clark wrote for the Court in Abington v. Schempp, 1963

[16] See, e.g., Everson, 330 U.S. at 18 (the First Amendment “requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and non-believers; it does not require the state to be their adversary.  State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them); Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98 (2001).

[17] Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 302 (2000) (quoting Board of Educ. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 250 (1990) (plurality opinion)); accord Rosenberger v. Rector of Univ. of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 841 (1995).

[18] Dr. Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education, Secretary’s Letter on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, February 7, 2003; p. 2

[19] Ibid., cover letter

[20] Ibid., p. 4

[21] A Parent’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, published by the National PTA and First Amendment Center, p.4

[22] A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, published by the First Amendment Center, p.3

[23] Ibid., p. 4

[24] The Mayflower Compact  – “In the name of God, Amen”, “Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith”, “in the presence of God and one another”

The Declaration of Independence – “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”, “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”, “appealing the Supreme Judge of the world”, “a firm reliance upon the protection of divine Providence”

The Gettysburg Address – “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”

[25] For example, Exodus 18:13-26 in the Old Testament

[26] Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools by Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas; First Amendment Center, 2002; p. 90

Table of Contents