Americans Misunderstand Role Of Religion In Public Schools, Survey Finds

A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that many Americans are confused about the proper role of religion in public education.

Pew gave a quiz on religion to about 3,400 Americans, releasing the results in September. The survey attracted a lot of media attention mainly because it showed that many Americans don’t know basic information about the Bible, Christianity and other faiths.

The quiz also included a few questions on the role of religion in government and public schools.

Sixty-eight percent of Americans know that the First Amendment means that the government can neither establish nor interfere with religion, and 89 percent know that a public school teacher cannot lead students in prayer.

But the survey also showed confusion over certain issues. Only 23 percent know that the Bible may be used in a literature course, and just 36 percent know that public schools may teach comparative religion courses.

In fact, courts have upheld objective courses that include religious literature, and public schools may teach about religion as long as the instruction is academic and not devotional.

Writing on AU’s “Wall of Separation” Blog, Assistant Director of Communications Rob Boston speculated that disinformation from the Religious Right has misled some Americans.

“Leaders and followers of that movement have spent the nearly 50 years since the first school-prayer ruling harping that public schools are hostile to religion,” Boston wrote. “They’ve moaned and complained that public schools must be absolutely religion free. They’ve told crazy stories about students being expelled for reading Bibles during free time. They’ve fabricated nutty tales of public schools that supposedly ban the colors red and green at Christmas…. No wonder so many Americans are confused!”

Americans United is working to set the record straight. Last year, AU published a book titled Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights.

The 129-page guide provides a clear and concise account of court rulings on a variety of religious issues related to the classroom. It was written by Anne Marie Lofaso, an associate professor of law at West Virginia University. A Harvard graduate, Lofaso has law degrees from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the University of Oxford.

Print editions of the book, which was supported by a grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, have been distributed to educators nationwide. The full text is also available online without cost at: