Religion and Educational Policy

Most global schools at one time or another were under the control of religious groups, such as Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu. As schools became secular, religious groups still tried to control and influence the content of instruction. The combination of nationalism and religion often appeared, particularly in the United States and India; I discuss the rise of Hindu education and nationalism in Chapter 3. Some nations, such as China, are using schools and detention camps in an educational effort to take away the culture and religious practices of Muslims living in Xinjiang.1

I’ll begin this chapter by discussing religious controversies in American public schools and then turn to global issues. Reflecting ongoing discussion of school prayer and religious texts, this chapter includes the 2020 U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines for school prayer and the use of religious texts in public-supported schools. Another important factor in U.S. discussions of schools and religion is the introduction of free market economic theory in education leading to school choice arguments favored by religious groups, such as charter schools, vouchers, scholarships and tuition tax credits.

In 2016, free market and religious concerns moved to the forefront when Betsy DeVos was appointed U.S. Secretary of Education. During this period, political commentators, like Steve Bannon and the Altright, supported Christian nationalism as necessary for free markets to create what Bannon calls “humane capitalism.” In addition, the media is politically divided when the Fairness Doctrine requiring fair and balanced programming ended in 1987, resulting in political divisions in cable news channels and talk radio over school policies, such as Fox News versus MSNBC.

U.S. Schools and Religious Policies

The role of religion in schools has been controversial since the founding of U.S. common schools in the 1830s and 1840s. Originally, some argued that public schools could not survive if specific religious doctrines were taught, resulting in Christian morality being taught in public schools without reference to a specific church doctrine. In the 1840s, Catholics rejected this policy, claiming religious instruction was a necessary part of education. The result was the creation of a parochial school system separate from public schools.2

Public schools remained Christian-oriented with many requiring school prayer and Bible reading until the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1962 (Engel v. Vitale) that official school prayers were unconstitutional and in 1963 (Abington School District v. Schempp) that required Bible reading was unconstitutional.5 These decisions unleashed a furious backlash from religious groups, which continue, as I explain later in this chapter, into the 2020s to affect educational policies.

As an example of school prayer and Bible reading prior to these two Supreme Court decisions, I transferred in 1953 from the secular public schools in San Diego, California, to the Christian-oriented and racially segregated public schools of Pensacola, Florida. This presented a problem. “These schools are segregated,” my mother explained. “I’m putting you in the White school. Don’t tell anyone about your father being Indian. They’ll put you in the Black school. Just be quiet when we go to register you.”

“Segregated?” I questioned.

“Crazy laws here, blacks in back of the bus and segregated schools.”

On my first day of at the segregated White school, my assigned teacher, Miss Greystone announced, “We have a new student, we’ll give him the honor of doing the daily Bible reading and prayer.” Picking up a Bible from her desk, she waved me to the front telling me to, “Read John 15:12-13 to the class.” I didn’t know what she was referring to. Seeing my confusion, Miss Greystone took the Bible, opened it to the passage and handed it back pointing at the section: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Then Miss Greystone asked me to lead the class in prayer. I didn’t know what to say and quickly mumbled something like “God bless us all” and hurried back to my seat.4

Even after court decisions about Bible reading and school prayer, there continued religious pressure on U.S. educational policies to promote abstinence sex education, support for religious-oriented charter schools, Bible studies and school prayer. Religious pressures, as I will describe, resulted in the expansion of charter schools and plans to fund parents so that they can choose a religious-oriented school for their children. The arguments for school choice in U.S. schools were born in the 1960s and continues as part of the demand for a greater role for religious influence in schools.

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