Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
—The “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment
The Religion and Public Education Project promotes greater understanding of the First Amendment principles that set the framework for thinking about the topic of religion and public education in the United States. Foremost among these principles is the distinction between school-sponsored practice of religion on the one hand, and the academic study of religion on the other hand.
Most Americans are aware that the courts have found public school sponsorship of religious practices to be a violation of the “establishment” clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But many people are not aware that teaching about religion in the public schools is perfectly consistent with constitutional principles. Indeed, as Justice Tom Clark wrote in the U.S. Supreme Court case, Abington School District v. Schempp (1963): "...it might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization."
In the past twenty years there has emerged a broad national consensus about how and how not to teach about religions in public schools, and the U.S. Department of Education has distributed guidelines for teaching about religion to every public school in the nation. Rooted in the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment, these guidelines draw a sharp distinction between teaching about religion on the one hand, and religious or anti-religious indoctrination on the other hand.
- The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
- The school strives for student awareness of religions, but does not press for student acceptance of any religion.
- The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion.
- The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
- The school educates about all religions, it does not promote or denigrate religion.
- The school informs students about various beliefs, it does not seek to conform students to any particular belief.
—A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools (First Amendment Center, Nashville, 1999, 3).
Through public presentations, workshops for teachers, partnerships with other educational and civic organizations, and this website, RPEP works to promote and apply these First Amendment guidelines when dealing with the study of religious and secular worldviews in the public school curriculum.