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Controversies in Teaching about Religion

Controversial court cases in the teaching of religion in the American Public school system.

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Religion's place in public education is a delicate issue. "Few issues have stirred greater controversy in Americans' attitudes toward public education than the role of religion and values in public schools" (California Board of Ed, 1997). Attitudes towards religion can be said to be part of our nation's identity. Our right to exercise religious freedom creates the allowance of choice in a pluralistic society, yet the separation between Church and State are not set as distinct lines. When do educators cross the line from teaching about to religion to simply preaching, or advancing their own beliefs? It is not always so easy to tell, as many recent cases suggest.
While the establishment clause sets precedents that appear obvious, situations arise were the line between teaching religious history to imposing morality on students, becomes blurred. The 1947 decision of Everson v. Board of Education, established a concept of neutrality in regards to religion, with the premise that "public schools, as government institutions, must be religiously neutral. . . among religions and . . . between religion and non-religion. Yet, we can see many recent cases where schools have not remained completely neutral.
In August 2005, for instance, a Delaware Federal District court found "individual school board members enjoy absolute legislative immunity from a lawsuit brought by parents alleging that the board had developed, adopted, or implemented policies, practices, and customs permitting religious worship" (Dobrich v. Walls, 2005). The Dobrich parents, who were Jewish, alleged that students attending bible study received preferential treatment in class, creating an "environment of exclusion" and that teachers often referred to their own religious beliefs during class time (Dobrich v. Walls, 2005).
In School Law: Cases and Concepts, La Morte affirms that in regards to religion confusion arises from, "the lack of a clear message from the judiciary regarding the height of the wall that separates church and state. This may be seen in the United States Supreme Court split decisions that are rife with strident and often acrimonious dissenting opinions" (2005, 44). Why does the mere mention of religion seem to create controversy? I argue that the dramatic change in attitudes towards religion in public education, have created radical views of the topic of religion in schools. On one hand, some assert any involvement of religion in schools should be eliminated, particularly seeming to target non-Western religions. Moreover the other, allows expressing moral or religious beliefs that go unmonitored.
The history of religion in the public school system has undergone extraordinary changes. In the 19th century, the model of a devotional, protestant-influenced public school system prevailed with daily prayer and references to religious morality (O'Neil & Lochert 2002). Today's approach to religion acknowledges the various belief systems of ...