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Religion in the Public Schools

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

American public education is undergoing the most serious crisis in the history of the country. The issue at stake is the character of tax-supported schools in a democratic society. Opposing sides are both appealing to the Constitution to promote their own concept of education. Religionists argue that every citizen has a right to the knowledge of God and the moral law, which the schools along with the churches and the home should supply. Secularists appeal to liberty of conscience, which they claim is violated whenever religion is taught under civil authority. The conflict runs deep into the national culture and goes back to the early history of America. It has currently reached a stage of development that deserves to be better known by Catholic teachers and educators.

Historical Background

Two qualities characterized education when the republic was born in 1776. The schools were normally religious in temper and purpose, usually linked with some church organization, and they were locally directed. When Congress organized the lands west of the Atlantic seaboard in 1787, it legislated that “religion, morality and education being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” [1]

Unfortunately, many of our political leaders at the beginning of the nineteenth century were outspoken Deists who professed the natural religion that was so popular in France and England at that time. In 1837 a bill was passed by the Massachusetts legislature which established a state board of education and appointed the lawyer Horace Mann, who sponsored the bill, as the first secretary of the board. Mann is properly regarded as the father of the American public schools. The mainstay of his lifetime agitation for secular schools directed by the state was a double conviction. He believed that efficiently organized schools will bring about an ideal human society; and he was convinced that Christianity, in the Calvinist form which he knew, had nothing to contribute to the purpose of education.

Mann’s crusading spirit effected a profound change in less than two generations. From institutions that were avowedly Christian, a system of free schools maintained by state taxes was established, first in the East and gradually throughout the country. Education was dissociated from religious teachings and school attendance became compulsory.

Conscious of the altered character of American education, the Catholic bishops first advised and finally, in 1884, decreed the erection of parochial schools in every diocese of the country. Catholic parents were “bound to send their children to the parochial schools, unless either at home or in other Catholic schools they may sufficiently and evidently provide for the Christian education of their children.” [2] These laws are still in effect and form the juridical basis of the Catholic school system in America, which currently enrolls nearly five million students, from elementary grades through college and university.

Protestant Christians were at first reluctant to abandon their own confessional schools. But before long most of the churches were reconciled to state control of education, and, in fact, came to look upon the public schools as fundamentally Protestant institutions. As expressed by one Baptist journal at the time of the Vatican Council, “Indirectly, our free schools are Protestant agencies. And they are so because, in enlightening his mind, they enable the Catholic youth to see through the false and unreasonable assumption of the ‘infallible Pope.’” [3]

At first, also, serious efforts were made to maintain a species of religious atmosphere in the public schools. To this day not a few institutions supported by state or municipal funds permit a certain amount of religious instruction which is often disguised and seldom publicized. But the number of conflicting sects had so increased and the influence of forces hostile to religion so expanded that the result was inevitable. Public education became generally secularized. Exceptions in some localities only prove the rule, which even Protestants are willing to admit. While describing public education as their “gift to the nation,” they confess that conflict over principles was resolved “by the steady secularization of the schools which has brought its own problems, and for which no satisfactory solution has been found.” [4]

Traditional Efforts to Oppose Secularization

Faced with the reality of having nurtured an agency that was oblivious to Christian principles, the Protestant churches began to look around for solutions. The dilemma that lay before them was either to reform the basic philosophy on which public education is built, or abandon the system as inadequate for raising religious literacy.

Outstanding among the sects that followed the Catholic lead and made the more difficult choice was the Lutheran Missouri Synod, which now has the largest Protestant school system in America, operating twelve hundred institutions with an average enrollment of one hundred students. “It is not correct,” they say, “to divide education into a religious and non-religious category, to separate the one from the other, and to set up a dual education offered by institutions which differ in their nature and philosophy.” [5]

Except for the Missouri Lutherans and a few minor churches, however, the bulk of American Protestants are dedicated to the public schools and therefore look for solutions to the religion problem within the existing framework. For generations they have organized Sunday schools, attached to the church, where the local minister or zealous lay people instruct the children in the rudiments of Christian doctrine. Though widespread and well subsidized, Sunday schools are said to be insufficient. They cater mostly to young children, attendance is irregular, and in one hour they can hardly correct the non-religious impressions received during the week in the public school.

More recently the program of released time was developed, which allows pupils to receive instruction from their respective ministers of religion for one hour a week during school time. In 1948 the Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitutional unless instruction were given off the school grounds. Though released time was first promoted by the Protestant churches, they are becoming critical of its deficiencies, especially the lack of competent teachers. Moreover only thirteen out of forty-eight States permit released time, and even then not always by law but only by court decision, as in Illinois.

Latest Efforts to Bring Religious Values into Public Education

Since 1948 when the Supreme Court outlawed religious instruction on school property, Protestants commonly felt that a more positive strategy should be developed to meet the critical need for spiritual values in public education. Their efforts in this direction in the past ten years can only be described as phenomenal, considering the magnitude of the problem and the opposition of secularists in the government and education. Several volumes have been published on the subject in the last decade and the prospects are at least promising.

Although Catholics operate their own educational system, they are also deeply interested in the public schools. Four million of their own children attend these institutions whose character profoundly affects the moral status of the whole nation. Consequently, priests and teachers have been encouraged by the hierarchy to co-operate with non-Catholic educators towards elaborating a method of teaching religious values without infringing on anyone’s constitutional rights.

In 1955 the National Council of Churches sponsored a three-day conference, attended by the writer as an observer, dealing with the general subject of “Religion and Public Education.” Agenda for the conference were five years in the making, and the conference itself was composed of invited delegates from all the major non-Catholic churches in America. This was the first time in our history that the Protestant bodies took corporate action to check the growing secularization of the public schools.

Last year a second national conference on the same subject was sponsored by the American Council on Education, which coordinates the educational associations in the country. Attendance was again by invitation and limited to sixty delegates, but the purpose now was more than exploratory. Since the American Council is a policy-making body, the delegates were expected to help towards reshaping educational principles by meeting the demands for a closer integration of religion and public education.

Out of several hundred pages of reports and resolutions passed by the two congresses, certain features and the lines of opposition begin to stand out. Two principal methods are proposed for integrating religion with the public school curriculum. One calls for the actual teaching of moral and spiritual values based on a “common core” of fundamental truths that should be admitted by all religious creeds. The second method wants to avoid indoctrination and recommends a factual teaching about religion, with no imposition of religious principles.

The assumption which underlies the “common core” method is the hope that if religious leaders and educators agree on the minimum essentials of every religion, teachers in public schools can be given the legal sanction for interpreting the standard subjects of the curriculum in the light of sound religious principles.

Three different interpretations are proposed for the “common core.” The most optimistic has been worked out by Catholic educators, and on presentation seemed to be acceptable to most of the delegates of the National Council of Churches. It is proposed that every child in the public schools should learn at least seven fundamental truths:

  1. The existence of God.

  2. Man’s condition as a creature dependent on his Creator.

  3. God, the source of the inalienable rights of man.

  4. The fundamental purpose of our laws - the protection of these God-given rights.

  5. The basic equality of all men under God.

  6. The dignity of man and sacredness of human life.

  7. Man’s responsibility to the moral law as formulated in the Ten Commandments. [6]

At the other extreme, and opposed to any teaching of moral values as religious truths, is a small but vocal minority like the Synagogue Council of America. In a written statement, supplemented orally before the National Council of Churches, they declared that “insofar as the teaching of ‘spiritual values’ may be understood to signify religious teaching, this must remain as it has been the responsibility of the home, the synagogue and the church.” Consequently, “we are opposed to any public school program that seeks to inculcate as doctrine any body of principles, beliefs or concepts that is represented as the common core of several or all religious faiths.” [7] Substantially the same sentiments were repeated at the conference of the American Council on Education.

Between these extremes lies a nebulous theory of compromise that is willing to promote the teaching of moral and spiritual values, but in such a way that God is not explained to the pupil and the “rights” of the atheist to his infidelity are not denied. While protesting that “the public schools are not godless,” advocates of this theory require that “they do not teach God because to teach God is to define and interpret God, and this becomes sectarian.” Moral and spiritual ideas, therefore, may be communicated to the students provided “the schools respect the religion of each child, and his belief or disbelief in God as taught by the home.” [8] This straddling effort to reconcile theism and atheism was said to have been endorsed by all the superintendents of school systems in cities with more than 200,000 population.

As an alternative or complement to the teaching of a “common core,” educators have coined a new phrase: teaching about religion. Most of the delegates at both conferences advocated this method. The idea is to have the teacher take cognizance of religious events, principles and personalities whenever they are intrinsic to the subject matter of the regular curriculum. No subject would be exempt from the integration. Thus when studying history, the pupils would be told about the evangelization of America by Spanish and French missionaries, in literature about the religious poems of John Milton, and in the social sciences about the value of moral principles for the shaping of human conduct.

Using American history as her model for religious integration, one representative at the 1957 conference (a Catholic sister) drew up a set of guiding principles that were generally approved by the assembled delegates. “Teaching religious facts in American history to public school pupils,” she declared, “is admittedly difficult, but it can be done. In fact, it must be done to teach history validly, for certain religious facts are inseparable from it.” Necessarily such teaching is limited by law, by policy of the system and school, by parental convictions, but especially by each pupil’s freedom of conscience which must be respected. In spite of these limitations, however, two large areas of the history curriculum are susceptible for religious integration: “Events or movements which have had unquestioned religious aspects, and persons of historical importance who in some way brought a religious element into the story of our nation.” [9]

With rare exception, therefore, both the National Council of Churches and the American Council on Education would agree that a factual teaching about religion is constitutionally valid and socially desirable, in order to give the students at least some acquaintance with the religious culture of the American people. But the Jewish element dissents. They see no difficulty if the public schools explain the role that religion has played in the life of mankind and in the development of society, when such teaching is essential to the regular subject matter. But they strongly oppose any attempt by the public elementary and secondary schools to go beyond this, and teach about the doctrines of religion. They fear that an objective and impartial teaching about religious beliefs is unattainable. Any effort to introduce such teaching, they claim, poses the grave threat of pressures upon school personnel from sectarian groups and compromises the integrity of the public educational system.

The Catholic Attitude Towards the Present Crisis

Catholic educators have not been slow to recognize the importance of the current interest in religion for public schools. The spiritual welfare of millions of Catholic children, and others, will be affected by whatever policy is eventually crystallized.

The most pressing need of education, if it is ever to teach religious values, is capable and high-minded teachers who can safely communicate their own ideals without infringing on the pupils’ right to religious freedom. To this end over one hundred Catholic colleges and universities are training young men and women for teaching in the public schools, in such a way as to draw out the spiritual implications of an otherwise secular curriculum. Along the same lines, Catholics are encouraged to enter the public teaching profession from apostolic motives, if only to check the growing naturalism in educational circles. More striking is the formation of leagues of Catholic lay teachers in public schools, whose purpose is to help, without proselytizing, in the character formation of their pupils. An outstanding example is the Catholic Teachers Association of the Diocese of Brooklyn, with a current membership of six thousand Catholic teachers in the city’s public elementary and secondary schools. Its first objective is “to further the religious education of Catholic children attending public schools,” its second “to keep alive in the hearts of its members the high ideals of the teaching profession…and to furnish opportunity for spiritual and cultural development through retreats, lectures and other activities.” [10]

Almost as important as teachers are the textbooks used in public schools. The problem is not so much to clear textbooks of attitudes that are alien to the Christian philosophy of life, but a question of including religious facts and principles which by their very nature belong to the courses that are studied. Catholics are joining the increased demand for a more courageous and true-to-life inclusion of religious issues in the public school texts of instruction. A national survey showed that only one out of twelve religious factors that are essential to American history is given adequate treatment in the current high school textbooks. The situation in other fields like literature and the social sciences is no better. The fault is not always with the writers. Often the publishers are responsible for deleting religious factors through fear of giving offense or stirring up a controversy, with consequent loss of sales.

Since the character of the schools is considerably determined by the spirit of the local community, Catholics are increasingly aware of their duty to cooperate with others in stressing the importance of spiritual values in public education. Where communities are relatively homogeneous, it is not so difficult to agree on a “common core” of religious truths which the teachers may communicate to the pupils, especially in following a common program of religious practices like prayer, hymns and reading from the Bible. One report from a study concerned about the rights of minorities illustrates the possibilities and dangers in this area. “It was a painful experience to discover in the schools religious practices well established by custom and supported by strong community sanctions, which did patent violence to the religious liberties of minority groups, as any discriminating court might define them.” [11]

Perhaps the most critical phase of Catholic interest concerns the legal status of public religious instruction. State laws are notoriously indifferent to the problem. Bible reading without comment is a fair example. Only half the states even permit the practice, and at least ten have banned the Scriptures as “sectarian literature.” More serious is the ambiguity of existing laws, which unbelievers are exploiting to their own advantage. When the Supreme Court in a celebrated case declared that the government may not “pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another,” churchmen of all denominations were shocked. [12] That was in 1947 and affected the teaching of religion in elementary schools. Ten years later in upholding a college professor’s right to teach Communism, the same court decided that “an immutable doctrine is repugnant to the spirit of a university, which is characterized by the spirit of free inquiry.” [13] While Catholics are not alone in protesting that American courts are favoring a naturalist concept of education, they are very clear-sighted on the remedies that are needed. “If the judiciary suffers today by a prevalence of secularists, then it is time to tighten the educational curriculum and produce idealists who will permit the rights of God to triumph.” [14] A long step in this direction is the renewed emphasis on professional schools of law in Catholic universities, at present twenty-one institutions, which offer a large potential for improving the statutes and interpreting their application in accordance with Christian principles.


In a pluralistic society like the United States, any effort to teach religion in the public schools bristles with difficulties. The most obvious is where to find a common basis on which so many religions can agree. But a greater obstacle is the attitude of those who claim that morality is possible without responsibility to a personal God. When as powerful a body as the National Education Association officially defines “moral and spiritual values (as) those which exalt and refine life and bring it into accord with the standards of conduct that are approved in our democratic culture,” [15] the threat of secularism engulfing public education is seen to be more than a vague fear.

The Catholic bishops of America recognized this danger in their pastoral letter a year after the N.E.A. statement. They warned the people against the delusion of teaching “moral and spiritual values divorced from religion and based solely on social convention. Without religion, morality becomes simply a matter of individual taste, of public opinion or majority vote. Without religious education, moral education is impossible.” [16] It will lead to social chaos.

The task which lies ahead is not an easy one. It demands the solution of a problem that was not created in America but imported from Europe and descended from the Protestant Reformation. No doubt the democratic way of life has contributed something to the growth of religious libertarianism which is bringing the conflict of principles to a head. In any case, on the resolution of this issue may depend the future welfare and security of the nation.

[1] Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress on July 13, 1787.

[2] Acta et Decreta Concilii Plenarii Baltimorensis Tertii, 1886, p. 104.

[3] Examiner, March 31, 1870, quoted by F. X. Curran, S.J., The Churches and the Schools (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1954), p. 104.

[4] Church Federation of Greater Chicago, The Relation of the Churches to the Public Schools (Chicago: The Federation, 1955), p. 2.

[5] A. C. Stellhorn, Lutheran Schools (St. Louis: Lutheran Education Association, 1953), pp. 4-5.

[6] Statement of Monsignor John J. Voight, Secretary of Education for the Archdiocese of New York, published by The Guild of Catholic Lawyers, September 28, 1955.

[7] Statement of the Synagogue Council of America and the National Community Relations Advisory Council, November 6, 1955, p. 2.

[8] School Superintendents of Cities in the United States and Canada with Population over 200,00, An Education Platform for the Public Schools (Chicago: School Superintendents, Educational Division, Field Enterprises, Inc., 1952), pp. 18-19.

[9] Statement submitted to the American Council on Education by Sister Mary Nona McGreal, O.P., March, 1957, p. 14.

[10] Constitution of the Catholic Teachers Association of the Diocese of Brooklyn, art. iii, secs. 1-2.

[11] Statement of F. Ernest Johnson, Chairman of the Committee on Religion and Education of the American Council on Education, March, 1957, p. 3.

[12] Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, 67 S. Ct. 504, 962; 330 U.S. 1, 855 (1947).

[13] Quoted from Justice Frankfurter, decision of the U. S. Supreme Court, May 27, 1957, upholding the right of Paul M. Sweezy, lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, to refuse to answer questions about teaching Communism.

[14] Frederick G. Hochwalt, “A Catholic Educator’s View,” American Education and Religion, ed. F. Ernest Johnson (New York: Harper & Bros., 1952), p. 71.

[15] Educational Policies Commission of the N.E.A. and the A.A.S.A., Moral and Spiritual Values in the Public Schools (Washington: The Commission, 1951), p. 3.

[16] “National Pastoral of the American Catholic Hierarchy,” issued November 15, 1952, quoted in The Catholic Mind, LII (January, 1953), 60.

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J., is on the staff of West Baden College, West Baden Springs, Indiana.

Father Hardon wrote this article originally for La Civilta Cattolica where it appeared, January, 1958, in Italian.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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