“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools”

Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University

Charles C. Haynes


Each day millions of parents from diverse religious backgrounds entrust the education of their children to the teachers in our nation’s public schools. For this reason, teachers need to be fully informed about the constitutional and educational principles for understanding the role of religion in public education. This teacher’s guide is intended to move beyond the confusion and conflict that has surrounded religion in public schools since the early days of the common school movement. For most of our history, extremes have shaped much of the debate. On one end of the spectrum are those who advocate promotion of religion (usually their own) in school practices and policies. On the other end are those who view public schools as religion-free zones. Neither of these approaches is consistent with the guiding principles of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.

Fortunately, however, there is another alternative that is consistent with the First Amendment and broadly supported by many educational and religious groups. The core of this alternative has been best articulated in “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy,” a statement of principles issued by 24 national organizations. Principle IV states:

Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and reli- gious 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.i

The questions and answers that follow build on this shared vision of religious liberty in public education to provide teachers with a basic understanding of the issues concerning religion in their classrooms. The advice offered is based on First Amendment principles as currently interpreted by the courts and agreed to by a wide range of reli- gious and educational organizations. For a more in-depth examination of the issues, teachers should consult Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools.ii This guide is not intended to render legal advice on specific legal questions; it is designed to provide general information on the subject of religion and public schools.

Keep in mind, however, that the law alone cannot answer every question. Teachers and administrators, working with parents and others in the community, must work to apply the First Amendment fairly and justly for all students in our public schools.

i This shared vision of religious liberty in public education is remarkable both for who says it and for what it says. The National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National School Boards Association, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National PTA and the American Association of School Administrators join with the Christian Legal Society, the American Center for Law and Justice, and Citizens for Excellence in Education in asserting these principles. People for the American Way, the Anti- Defamation League and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations are on the list, as are the Council on Islamic Education, the Christian Educators Association International, and the Christian Coalition. Free copies are available through the First Amendment Center.

ii Finding Common Ground by Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas is available at www.amazon.com. A discount is available through the First Amendment Center for orders of 10 books or more. For the discount, call 202/292-6288. iii Based on guidelines originally published by the Public Education Religion Studies Center at Wright State University.


Endorsed by the following organizations:

American Association of School Administrators
American Federation of Teachers 
American Jewish Committee 
American Jewish Congress Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development 
Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs 
Christian Educators Association International 
Christian Legal Society 
Council on Islamic Education 
National Association of Elementary School Principals 
National Association of Evangelicals 
National Association of Secondary School Principals 
National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. 
National Council for the Social Studies 
National Education Association 
National PTA 
National School Boards Association 
Union of American Hebrew Congregations 
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America

[Excerpts from “A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools.” Charles C. Haynes. Freedom Forum First Amendement Center. www.freedomforum.org. 2008.]