Religion in the Public Schools
A Statement of The American Lutheran Church, 1984
Adopted by the Twelfth General Convention of The American Lutheran Church, October 20, 1984, as a statement of comment and counsel to the member congregations of The ALC, in response to a request by the Tenth General Convention of The ALC, October 1980 (GC8O.6.1).
A. Questions and Concerns
Various questions and concerns have arisen about the proper place for religion and religious expression in the public schools. Proposals favoring a constitutional amendment allowing schools to set aside time for prayer have been offered in Congress. Numerous communities have struggled with questions related to the inclusion of religious music in school programs.
Fundamental questions about the place of religion in the public schools are being asked. Must all observance of religious holidays in the schools be avoided? What is the meaning and ultimate effect of religious liberty in a pluralistic society? Does the Constitution require that all religious expressions be equally excluded from the public schools so that no one of them receives unfair advantage ("no establishment" clause of the First Amendment)? Or, does it require that all be given equal opportunity for expression ("free exercise" clause of the First Amendment)?
Still other questions call for serious attention. Can public schools conduct courses in moral education which may have content offensive to some religious groups? Is secular humanism, a view of human life which affirms human values but excludes all considerations of God, really the religious perspective of the public schools? Does the public school function as the "established church" of American "civil religion?"
Such questions reflect the deep concern felt by many Christians as they attempt to deal with expressions of their religious heritage and commitments in ways appropriate to a pluralistic society and sensitive to the requirements of religious liberty.
B. Prescribed Religious Exercises
Officially prescribed prayer and Bible-reading exercises in the school are essentially devotional in character and constitute an offense to religious liberty. The American Lutheran Church has declared that "reading of Scripture and addressing deity in prayer are forms of religious expression which devout persons cherish. To compel these religious exercises as essential parts of the public school program, however, is to infringe on the beliefs of religious persons as well as the rights of the irreligious." ("Church-State Relations in the U.S.A.," 1964)
Laws mandating "voluntary" prayer in the public schools are unnecessary since truly voluntary prayer is now possible. Moreover, were the state to mandate such prayer, it would be no longer genuinely voluntary. We likewise oppose proposals which would strip the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, of jurisdiction to hear cases involving voluntary school prayer. Such proposals have raised serious questions of constitutionality, appearing to circumvent the constitutional safeguards concerning religious liberty.
Devotional exercises to cultivate and nurture the religious faith of young people do not belong in the schools but in the home and the church. Officially prescribed devotional exercises open the door to sectarian intrusion or to governmental prescription of an official faith.
C. Religious Elements in Public Education
The American Lutheran Church has declared that "it is a distortion of the constitutional principle of neutrality of the state toward religion to insist that public schools ignore the influence of religion upon culture and persons. A rounded education ought to include knowledge of major religious groups and their emphases, the influence of religion upon the lives of people, and the contribution of religion to society, taught in history, literature, social science, and other courses at levels consistent with the maturity and comprehension of the pupils. The objective for the public schools in this direction is understanding rather than commitment, a teaching about religion rather than a teaching of religion. Churches ought to offer their assistance to the public schools in preparing for and in supporting the teaching of such courses." ("Church-State Relations in the U.S.A.," 1964)
This means that we uphold the freedom and responsibility of the schools to deal with the materials of heritage in a wholistic rather than truncated manner. For example, sacred or religious music ought not be excluded from school music programs. To do so would be to distort our cultural heritage. Moreover, to systematically exclude from the curriculum or from school programs all materials expressing religious themes would indirectly support secular humanism as the religious viewpoint of the public schools.
Discussion of religious holidays in the school should be for the purpose of educational objectives and not a matter of religious observance. If schools close to allow for observance of religious holidays, care should be taken to treat equitably all religious groups having a substantial numerical presence in the community.
D. Values Education
Schools unavoidably teach or transmit a whole range of values. Many such values are shared by an entire community and pose no special problems to public schools. When values of various persons or groups in a community are in conflict, however, public schools often find themselves caught in such conflict. It is not then the function of the schools to exalt one set of religiously-grounded values above another. Nor should the schools give the impression that values are simply a matter of personal preference, thereby promoting a view of moral relativity. Such approaches to questions of values are fundamentally inappropriate for public schools.
Christian parents and the churches must assume their rightful responsibility for communicating their religious commitments and values to their children. The distinctiveness of those commitments and values should be neither promoted nor undermined by the manner of religious expression in the public schools.