Contrary to culture war mythology, God is alive and well in many, if not most, public schools.
Visit almost any school in America and you’ll find students sharing their faith, reading their scriptures, saying grace before lunch and, in high schools, meeting in religious clubs.
But in a growing number of state legislatures around the country, lawmakers want more.
Barred by the U.S. Supreme Court from turning the clock back to the days of state-sponsored prayers and devotional Bible reading, state legislatures are discovering creative new ways to get more religion through the schoolhouse door.
Last week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a law encouraging local school boards to create a forum at school-sponsored events for students to give inspirational messages. Although the state can’t require students to give a prayer, critics of the legislation say “inspiration” is a euphemism for “prayer” and student government leaders charged with deciding who speaks will inevitably favor the majority faith.
Texas passed the first of what opponents dub “prayer bills” in 2006. Other state legislatures, including Oklahoma and Tennessee, are currently debating similar legislation.
Creating a “free speech” forum at school events may indeed be constitutional, but lower courts remain divided on where to draw the line on student speech before a captive audience.
Beyond the murky legal issues, giving control of the microphone to student speakers strikes many school administrators as a risky business. Get ready for conflicts and lawsuits when some students offer Christian prayers, others pray Muslim, Wiccan or fill-in-the-blank prayers, and still others speak out for atheism.
Meanwhile in Arizona, lawmakers in the state House voted in February for a “Bible bill” designed to encourage schools to set up Bible courses (it’s now before the state Senate). Although public schools in most states can offer Bible electives now, some legislators want to provide state support and incentives to encourage more such courses.
Georgia, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina already have “Bible bills” - and other Bible Belt states are likely to follow suit.
Of course, Bible literature and history can (and should) be part of the public school curriculum - but only if the material is taught objectively using scholarly materials. Most of the Bible bills, however, give little or no guidance on what safeguards schools should put in place to ensure that Bible courses are academic, not devotional. And little provision is made to prepare teachers or to provide scholarly resources for teaching about the Bible.
A proliferation of Bible courses in public schools, taught by unqualified teachers using the Bible as a history textbook, will be a boon for lawyers - but a legal quagmire for school officials.
Prayer and Bible bills are part of a larger legislative effort by many conservative Christian groups and lawmakers to reverse what they see as a secularization of American schools and society that is hostile to (their) religion.
Religiously-motivated opponents of evolution, for example, are pushing hard in many states for legislation that would require teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution and other topics they deem “controversial” in science. Louisiana passed such a bill in 2008. A similar bill was enacted by the Tennessee legislature last month and awaits the governor’s signature.
Critics of these bills charge that this nationwide effort to change science education is yet another attempt by the Christian Right to undermine teaching the well-established theory of evolution - and a backdoor way to promote religious views as science in public schools. Supporters counter that opening the science curriculum to other views promotes critical thinking and exposes the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.
It’s worth recalling that over the past two decades, groups on the left and right managed to reach consensus on a range of religion-in-school issues, from the importance of teaching about religion to the necessity of protecting student religious-liberty rights.
But now groups on all sides are gearing up for a new round of conflict generated by state legislation that goes beyond the consensus by encouraging prayers at school-sponsored events, promoting problematic Bible courses, and sparking new debates over science education.
Welcome to the latest chapter in the long struggle over the role of religion in schools - an argument that dates back to the founding of public education more than 150 years ago.
In the spirit of the times, let’s call it school wars 4.0.
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington.