Drawing the line between religion and state

The weaponization of religion in schools


Brinda Ambal and Serena Liu

The influence of religion on public education discussions has grown: we have to protect the secularism of public education while remaining respectful to all groups.

As reporters of our school and community, we believe we must share and respect all student voices. Over the last year, we have covered controversial and underrepresented topics, including gender-neutral bathrooms, critical race theory and other ethnic issues. These stories shed light on the struggles that our friends and peers face every day, yet they also leave the door open for students to voice their own opinions. 

We strive to make our newspaper inclusive and leave an open comment section for students to voice their opinions on articles freely. Whether using their fake or real names, students have taken advantage of the comment section by questioning minorities for their personal beliefs and practices: their arguments are primarily supported by religious beliefs.

We don’t believe in hindering anyone’s freedom to share their beliefs and opinions through our publication—as long as it doesn’t make any students feel threatened, unsafe or belittled at school by their peers. We respect and celebrate all forms of religion at our school, but we will not allow our publication to become a tool for using religious beliefs to disrespect minorities.

It’s essential to recognize that many religions and religious people are inclusive of others. Therefore, this is not a battle against religion or the positive impact it can have on peoples’ lives.

Although everyone has the right to express their religion freely, these ideals should not be weaponized in secular systems, especially when it comes to public education. It is important to realize that individuals who engage in this conversation are often not full representations of their religious background.

With these notes in mind, the Pathfinder advocates for taking religion out of the discussion. In saying this, we are not encouraging the villainization of religion or inhibiting people’s right to worship. We just need to stop using religious beliefs as a supporting argument in secular settings.

Religion and the state government

According to an email from Dr. Keith Marty regarding hate speech, our school mission is for all students to know they are safe and belong in our schools and community. 

Schools should be safe places where students are protected and supported in their religious practices and beliefs. However, one student’s religious beliefs should not infringe on another’s right to secular public education.

Case law has established limits on how much religion should influence public education. The famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial is related to teaching Darwinism evolution in school. It tested this boundary, but the issue was dismissed on a mere technicality and never fully resolved. It wasn’t until 1968 that Epperson v. Arkansas established an Ark. law as unconstitutional. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment cited the Bible as the reason not to teach evolution in schools. This created a separation of church and state in public education.

[Some] members of our Editorial Board… remember their parents just telling them to grin and bear it when they were younger and not cause a scene. Other members remember that their church teaches them to freely practice their religion in public spaces.”

— Pathfinder Editorial Board

The Establishment Clause prohibits practices or programs that “aid or oppose any religion” from public schools. Regardless of the intent, religious persuasion in public education settings can negatively impact students. 

However, there is a fine line between the limits of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. People have the right to free exercise their religion, but how far can students go in practicing their religion in a school setting? This question was answered in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.

The case attempted to decide if the school should allow student-run prayers to be announced over the loudspeakers on game days. The Supreme Court found that prayers cannot be announced to the whole school, even when initiated by a student. Students who listen will associate the religious practice with their public school and the government by proxy.

Contrasting beliefs are hard to handle in the case of a dispute. In public schools, these arguments should remain respectful and secular, but recent issues in the news have not reflected those values. This is particularly evident in how we discuss issues facing LGBTQ youth.

A bill developing in Tennessee bans institutional material that aims to normalize or support actions of the LGBTQ community. It argues that these conversations are not appropriate in a school environment. The bill suggests that gender and sexual orientation should not be taught in grades K-12 because “the promotion of LGBT issues and lifestyles in public schools offends a significant portion of students, parents and Tennessee residents with Christian values.”

We cannot allow religious values to shape bills in general, much less bills related to public education. Religious beliefs hold no weight in this context.

Religion in a school environment

However, applying this principle to everyday situations left our Editorial Board split. Consider the following hypothetical situation: 28 members of a 30-person varsity football team decide to lead a private, student-run prayer before a game. The other two members, who are either atheist, agnostic or practice a different religion, are given the option to join in and potentially feel uncomfortable or abstain and feel left out.

What is the right decision here? As introduced above, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe would argue that this is okay because it’s an optional and private expression of religious worship. Students’ right to freely practice their religion in ways that don’t affect others is protected under the First Amendment.

However, on the other side, this practice can hurt the other two students. Even though the prayer would be optional, when many students engage in activities like this as a team, it can cause feelings of otherness and isolation. Many minority groups throughout history have experienced trauma from religious otherness. Minorities may also feel pressured to participate in religious activities that they do not believe in only because the rest of their team is doing the same. 

Members of our Editorial Board who grew up in minority religious families remember their parents just telling them to grin and bear it when they were younger and not cause a scene. Other members remember that their church teaches them to freely practice their religion in public spaces. If seeing and being around prayer encourages students to seek out religion, it is a net positive for the world. These instilled practices in children pose two different sides of the same coin. Yet, one of them directly pressures people into participating in a religion they do not believe in, especially in secular settings. 

Religion in our community

The role of religion in shaping societal standards is an issue that will never be fully resolved in our society. However, bridging the gap between those guided by religious scriptures and those who are not is an issue that has come up in our history time and time again.

As mentioned before, we support all of our peers regardless of their religious beliefs, gender or sexuality. Our newspaper is a safe place for everyone, and we encourage positive, respectful discussion on any issues, however controversial. Debating issues that we strongly believe in is a practice that challenges our perspectives, educates us and helps us to understand our peers better. Therefore, if you would like to discuss the above hypothetical or the rest of the article, we encourage you to leave a respectful comment.

We urge all of you to remember the power of your words before commenting on controversial stories, speaking out in social studies classes or making a joke that might come off as insensitive. The utmost priority is to make our school a safe and comfortable place for everyone regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.