Should religion be allowed in public schools?

Tension tightens over the First Amendment’s religious clauses, opening up the old debate about religion's place in public schools

Rise of the Issue

The First Amendment’s clauses regarding religious freedom reignite the heated political debate over religions’ place in the classroom. The two clauses are the Free Exercise clause, which protects citizens’ right to freely practice their religion, and the Establishment Clause, which ensures separation between church and state by banning the government from establishing a religion. Thus, a conflict is created when public schools wish to allow or ban religious activity in school because arguably either clause could be violated. With this conflict, comes concerns over the relationship between church and state as well as religious freedom, bias, and indoctrination. 

Both sides agree over the value of religious freedom, but some assert that the freedom does not apply to school districts nor allows faculty to practice their religion with students during school. Furthermore, opposers to religious practices in schools worry that schools are attempting to instill beliefs in students and excluding those who do not fall in line. However, those in support of religious practices argue that religion can teach good values to students and encourage religious diversity.

Issue Timeline


Supreme Court First Applies Religion Clauses to Public Schools

After McCollum v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court quashed the practice of instructors offering religious lessons during school, marking the first time the court had applied the First Amendment’s religious clauses to public education institutions.


Supreme Court Allows Students to Exercise Religion

The case of Zorach v. Clauson led to the court allowing public schools to excuse students during the school day so they could participate in religious classes off school property.


Prayer in Schools is Ruled Unconstitutional

In Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court decided that public prayer in schools goes against the establishment clause in the First Amendment.


Supreme Court Rules School Sponsored Religious Activity Unconstitutional

After Abington School District v. Schempp, the Supreme Court decided that school-sponsored religious activities and exercises violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from establishing a religion.


Stone v. Graham

In line with its previous decision to prohibit school-sponsored religious expression, the court ruled a Kentucky law requiring all public schools to post a copy of the Ten Commandments unconstitutional.


Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe

In that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that student-recited prayer at high school football games could not be sponsored by schools.

Micro Issues


Religious Freedom

Both sides are concerned for their religious freedom with one side claiming that the banning of religious activity in schools would impede upon their religious practices and the other side asserting that religious education jeopardizes their freedom to remain secular.


Conflicting Values

Those against religion having its place in schools worry about religious bias and indoctrination in the curriculum and school officials’ practices, while those in support believe that exposing students to religious beliefs promotes diversity.



Proponents of religion in school argue that students with religious beliefs and practices would benefit from an environment that promotes religion, while opponents believe that secular students would feel excluded.

Pro Arguments


Religious activities can promote religious freedom.

By including religious activities in schools, students could practice their religions freely.


Inserting religion into education can teach important values.

Many believe that religious ideology can provide a stable foundation to inculcate good values and morals.


Allowing religion in school helps build an inclusive environment.

For students whose faith and its values are important, having access to its principles and education officials who share or encourage them can create a reassuring environment.


Religion could foster a sense of belonging amongst students.

Having the freedom to exercise their religion in school would promote a sense of community among children who share the same faith or who identify as religious.


Having religion in school could promote diversity and respect for different beliefs.

Being in contact with different religions and beliefs could increase students’ awareness, acceptance, and respect of American society’s diversity.

Con Arguments


Religiously affiliated education might infringe on people’s freedom of religion.

Performing religious activities during the school day could infringe upon some students' freedom of religion or secularity.


Schools with religious elements could be indoctrinating beliefs.

Having religious practices during school could encourage children into adopting certain beliefs and principles that their parents do not agree with.


Religious activities in the classroom could expose students to religious bias.

If schools are not committed to incorporating a wide range of religious activities, religious bias could dismiss cultural diversity and students' individual freedoms.


Religion in public education can be seen as exclusionary by some.

Even if students are allowed to remove themselves from the religious practices taking place in class, this could result in some students feeling isolated from their peers.


Too much emphasis on religious practices and beliefs may limit exposure to valuable secular principles.

Giving an important space to religion in school inevitably leads to making important choices in the school’s curriculum, especially when secular and religious principles and ideas are at odds.