Feature

Whose Religious Values?

Managing changing religious demographics in a school community legally and pro-actively by Joanne M. Marshall

Public schools, since their founding in America in 1647, have reflected the demographic characteristics of the communities in which they are located. Because the United States has, until recently, been mostly Protestant Christian, many schooling practices have built upon the values of this faith. Pupils have sung Christmas songs at Christmas programs, prayed publicly at graduation ceremonies and varsity football game. Districts have considered teaching creationism alongside evolution.

However, as the country has become more religiously diverse, federal courts have reviewed several of these Christian practices in cases that apply the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment clauses to school situations. No school leader wants to be involved in time-consuming, expensive and public litigation, but how should administrators and school boards respond to shifting religious demographics in their communities?

Recognizing Shifts
First, public school leaders need to recognize we’re not all Protestant Christians anymore, whether they lead schools in urban centers or remote, rural townships. Although religious affiliation is hard to measure precisely, a recent national survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life breaks down the U.S. religious landscape as follows: Protestant 51.3 percent, Roman Catholic 23.9 percent, unaffiliated 16.1 percent, other Christian 3.2 percent, Jewish 1.7 percent, Buddhist 0.7 percent, Muslim 0.6 percent, Hindu 0.4 percent and all others 2 percent.

Because it is difficult to count religious affiliation, the number affiliated with a given religion varies somewhat from survey to survey, but it is clear that what has been a Protestant majority now constitutes just over 50 percent in some surveys, while the categories of unaffiliated and those practicing other religions have grown since 1992. This prompted USA Today in 2004 to trumpet, “The Protestant majority might soon be no more.” The director of the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, Tom Smith, told the newspaper, “Since colonial times, the United States has been a Protestant nation. But perhaps as early as this year, the country will, for the first time, no longer have a Protestant majority.”

Researchers involved in the General Social Survey offer at least two reasons for the drop in Protestant affiliation. Foremost is that Protestant churches are not retaining members, particularly among youth, a trend that others also have observed. This is not to say that youth are not religious, because their weekly attendance at religious services remains fairly unchanged. However, they are defining their religious belief differently than previous generations. And the U.S. population as a whole has doubled in the number of people who claim no religious affiliation in the last two decades, from 8 percent in 1988 to 16.1 percent in 2007. However, according to the Pew Forum, the current figure includes individuals who are not religious (10.3 percent) and people who say religion is important in their lives but are not affiliated with a particular religion (5.8 percent). Thus there has been an increase in both nonreligious people and in religious people who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.”

Second, what sociologists call the “other” religions — the minority religions — are growing in the United States because of immigration. Only about 25 percent of immigrants are Protestant, and immigrants accounted for about 10 percent of the U.S. population in 2002. Overall, adherents of world religions such as Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism account for about 2.5 percent of the U.S. population. Other minority religions include such home-grown U.S. faiths as the Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians and Native American religions.

Both of these underlying causes for the decline in Protestantism have strong implications for public schools, whose very structures are rooted in Protestant Christianity.

Backward and Forward
For school leaders to understand exactly how rooted Protestantism has been in public schools and how conflictual that Protestant base has been, it is instructive to consider briefly the history of U.S. schooling.

When Massachusetts Puritans founded public schools in the mid-17th century, the stated intention was to teach children to read so they could read the Scriptures. Schools proceeded for several generations along these lines, using Protestant Christian primers and morality tales, which also tended to criticize Jews and Catholics. Protestant Christianity was so rooted in schools that when Horace Mann began campaigning for public schooling in the 1830s, his campaign rested on two main points: the importance of public schooling in creating both democratic citizens and nonsectarian Christians. However, Roman Catholics and Protestant evangelicals opposed Mann’s notion of public schools because they were concerned the nonsectarian Christian values he espoused would not adequately represent the religious beliefs of their particular group.

By the 1850s, new waves of German and Irish Catholic immigrants began to argue that if taxpayer dollars were to be used for public school instruction, then that instruction should include, or at least accommodate, the Catholic Bible and teaching. Such arguments, which also were tied to anti-immigrant sentiment, became so heated that riots broke out in New York City and Boston, and in Philadelphia 13 people were killed and 50 wounded. In New York, textbooks eventually were revised to remove anti-Catholic bias, though the Catholic Church also worked there and elsewhere to promote a strong parochial system as an alternative to public schools.

That parochial system remains today, one example of what happens when public schools fail to accommodate religious beliefs of the minority: Parents take their children elsewhere. Of the 10 percent of the nation’s children who currently attend nonpublic schools, 46 percent of those children attend Catholic schools and nearly 11 percent attend Jewish, Islamic or mainline Protestant schools. Another 15 percent of the nonpublic school students attend conservative Protestant Christian schools, and 2.2 percent of school-age children now are home-schooled, a good many of these because the parents find the public schools to be not religious enough.

All of this is to say that although U.S. schools were established from the beginning with religious values and a curriculum that matched the religious demographics of their communities, those values quickly became contentious when the demographics of the community changed from the original religious majority.

It also was conflictual when people, regardless of their religion, wanted public schools to address their own religious beliefs. Both conditions for conflict are evident now, at the start of the 21st century. Schools still reflect the values of the majority religion of their communities until faced with members of a vocal minority religion. And schools still offend those who don’t think their school accommodates their religion enough. Often these clashes are resolved in court.

Culturally Informed
During the Scopes trial of 1925, the nation watched as Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan battled in a Tennessee courtroom to decide whether John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, could teach evolution. Since then, courts have ruled on cases involving not only the teaching of evolution, but also school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and appropriate winter holiday practices. These cases always involve interpretation of the freedom of religion clauses of the First Amendment: the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses.

The savvy school leader must be aware of some of these court rulings on religion. But perhaps a more significant and more helpful general principle for school board members and administrators to recognize is that at their heart, all of these court cases deal with majority versus minority values about religion’s place in local public schools.

As our nation’s religious demographics change, being more sensitive to and culturally informed about other people’s religious beliefs can help minimize some of this conflict.

What follows are examples of how schools manage to offend people with both majority and minority religious beliefs.

Offending Non-Christians
What I call a “blurry Christianity” continues to have a place in some public schools, based on the majority religion of the community, which has tended up to now to be the Protestant faith. These schools sometimes get in trouble legally or make national news for violating the First Amendment’s Establishment clause at the expense of a nonreligious or minority religious group.

One obvious example is the “Pledge case,” in which atheist Michael Newdow challenged his daughter’s California school in 2002 for saying the Pledge of Allegiance with its phrase “under God.” The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow because of Newdow’s lack of custody of his daughter, but Newdow filed another suit against the Sacramento schools in 2005, a case still pending. While the Pledge is a national tradition rather than one initiated by the school, the case illustrates a school practice that violated the sensibilities of someone who is nonreligious. Other examples include a Missouri school district that was ordered in 2006 to stop opening every school assembly with teacher-led prayer and a Texas district sued in 2006 for its practice of starting each school day with a moment of silence.

Even curricula such as classes about the Bible can be contentious. The American Civil Liberties Union and the People For the American Way Foundation filed suit in 2007 against a western Texas school district for what they said was an explicitly Protestant view of the Bible that amounted to religious instruction. The district settled the suit by agreeing to change the curriculum to one developed by a superintendent-appointed committee of local educators.

Offending the Devout
The flip side of schools establishing a blurry Christianity is that schools also manage, in their attempts to avoid establishing religion, to prevent its free exercise, the First Amendment’s second clause. As in Horace Mann’s day, the first people to object to such prevention tend to be the majority Christians. The Ann Arbor, Mich., school district lost in court in 2004 for not allowing a Catholic student to speak against homosexuality. A high school valedictorian sued her Nevada district in 2006 for cutting the microphone during her graduation speech about Christ, and a New Jersey school district lost its case in 2006 against a football coach who bowed his head and knelt during the pre-game prayers that his players initiated.

Additional Resources


Joanne Marshall suggests these resources, all accessible electronically, as useful for education leaders wanting more information about the connection between religious belief and public schools.

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Christmas alone yields its share of lawsuits as parents litigate over what they see as schools undermining students’ religious freedom. Parents in New Jersey sued in 2004 over the Maplewood school district’s ban of instrumental Christmas music at the schools’ winter concerts. Parents in Plano, Texas, sued that district for banning not only the distribution of candy canes and pencils affixed with religious messages at holiday parties, but also red and green napkins, a policy eventually overturned in federal court.

Of course, Christians are not the only group whose free exercise of religion is contested. An Oklahoma district was ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2004 to allow a Muslim student to wear a head covering despite the school’s claim it violated the school dress code. Back in 1994, several California schools prevented Sikh students from wearing their “kirpans,” or ceremonial knives, to school until the courts and state legislature intervened.

Despite the legal protections already offered for the free exercise of religion, the Oklahoma House of Representatives Education Committee in February introduced House Bill 2211, which explicitly protects student expression of religious viewpoints. Texas passed a similar law in 2007. Such legislative proposals seem to represent distrust, at least at the state level, of how fairly schools and courts interpret the First Amendment.

Success Stories
It’s harder to identify school leaders who have been successful in managing changing religious demographics because they have not been splashed across newspapers and highlighted in legal briefs. However, there are a few shining examples of school leadership averting religious conflict.

A school district outside Milwaukee avoided a threatened lawsuit in 2004 by allowing students to post religious Christmas cards on a community bulletin board. A Maryland school district allows early dismissal for Muslim students on Fridays so they can attend prayer services. The metro Des Moines-area school districts moved their usual Friday night football games to Thursday in 2006 to accommodate Rosh Hashanah. One of the area superintendents, Greg Robinson of Urbandale, Iowa, expressed the rationale for the football rescheduling decision. “As our community grows and becomes more diverse, you have to respect other people’s traditions,” he told the Des Moines Register.

These examples point to leaders who are aware not only of First Amendment implications for their decisions, but also of the more global leadership strategy of questioning the religious basis of current practices and then accommodating the nonreligious and minority religious followers in their communities. Such sensitivity is increasingly important as the Christian demographic shrinks and the nonreligious and minority religious demographic grows.

Four Questions
Because of the Christian history of most communities, schools have seemed to drift along with blurry Christian practices until someone objects because those practices are too Christian or because they are not Christian enough. Such drifting might stop if school leaders and board members reflect upon these four questions:

1. What religious-related practices are in place in our district?

2. What educational purpose does this school practice serve?

3. Does that educational purpose violate anyone’s religious or nonreligious belief?

4. How can we reconcile majority and minority religious viewpoints when they conflict?

The Elk Grove case, better known as the Pledge case, in all its controversy, is a good example for reflection on these questions. What, after all, is the educational purpose of asking students to say the Pledge of Allegiance? Is it intended to make students more patriotic? To make them respect the flag? To unify the school community by starting each day reciting a statement together? Is it to remind everyone of God’s role in the nation? To connect students with a sense of U.S. civics or history or tradition?

The school’s responsibility as an educational body is to provide a rationale for such a practice and to evaluate the ration-ale to determine whether it is intended to establish or prevent the free exercise of religious belief or unbelief.

The last question about how to reconcile majority and minority religious viewpoints is the stickiest of all. Its answer depends partly on a school leader’s own belief system about what to value most in a given situation — for example, tradition versus change.

It also depends on the leader’s skill in reconciling community members or constituencies that have reasonable but opposing viewpoints about a given practice. However, given current demographic projections of a shrinking Protestant population and a growing nonreligious and minority religious population, the ability to answer that question and to communicate effectively with one’s community may be exactly what distinguishes the pro-active school leader from the one whose district becomes embroiled in courts and media reaction.

Joanne Marshall is an assistant professor of educational leadership studies and policy studies at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. E-mail: jmars@iastate.edu