The Educational Opportunity Section of the Civil Rights Division enforces Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion in public elementary and secondary schools, as well as in public colleges and universities. Yes, private religious schools can discriminate on the basis of religion. This means that students who practice a different faith may be denied admission to a religious-based school and may be excluded from classes or expelled for violating the school's faith-based code of conduct. More than 55 years after the Supreme Court issued its historic ruling that overturned school-sponsored prayer, Americans are still fighting for the place of religion in public schools. Questions about religion in the classroom no longer make as many headlines as they used to, but the topic remains an important battlefield in the wider conflict over the role of religion in public life.
Some Americans are concerned about what they see as an effort by federal courts and civil liberties advocates to exclude God and religious sentiment from public schools. These Americans believe that such an effort violates the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. Meanwhile, many civil liberties advocates and others express concern that conservative Christians and others are trying to impose their values on students. Federal courts, they note, have consistently interpreted the First Amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion to prohibit state sponsorship of prayer and most other religious activities in public schools. This debate focuses on public schools; very few people argue that religious doctrine cannot be taught in private schools or that teachers in those schools cannot guide students in prayer.
And even in public institutions, there is little debate about the right of students, teachers, and other school employees to practice their religion, for example, by praying before lunch or wearing religious clothing or symbols. Conflicts over religion at school are not new. In the 19th century, Protestants and Catholics often fought over Bible reading and prayer in public schools. The disputes then revolved around which Bible and what prayers were appropriate to use in the classroom. Some Catholics were concerned that school reading materials would include the King James version of the Bible, which was the favorite of Protestants.
In 1844, fighting broke out between Protestants and Catholics in Philadelphia; several people died in the violence and several Catholic churches were set on fire. During the 1850s, similar conflicts broke out in Boston and other parts of New England. In the early 20th century, liberal Protestants and their secular allies fought against religious conservatives over whether students in biology classes should be taught Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The Supreme Court intervened in those controversies when it ruled, in the case of Cantwell v. Ewing Township Board of Education (194), that the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment applied to states. The two clauses state: “Congress shall not enact any law that respects the establishment of a religion or that prohibits the free exercise of it.
Before those two court decisions, courts applied religious provisions only to federal government actions. Soon after Everson's decision, the Supreme Court began to specifically apply religious provisions to public school activities. In its first case of its kind, McCollum v. Board of Education (194), the high court invalidated the practice of religious instructors of different denominations entering public schools to offer religion classes during the school day to students whose parents requested them. A key factor in the court's decision was that classes were taught in schools.
Four years later, in Zorach v. Clauson, the court upheld an agreement by which public schools excused students during the school day so that they could attend religious classes outside school property. The new Pew Research Center survey reveals that one in ten religiously affiliated adolescents in a public school drops out of school to engage in religious activities. However, it's not always easy to determine exactly what constitutes indoctrination or school sponsorship of religious activities. For example, can a class on the Bible be taught as literature without prejudice for or against the idea that the Bible is religious truth? Can students be forced to participate in a Christmas-themed music program? Sometimes, students themselves, rather than teachers, administrators, or coaches, bring faith to school activities.
For example, when a student invokes gratitude to God in a farewell speech, or when a high school soccer player offers a group prayer, is the school legally responsible for their religious expression? Issues are complicated by other constitutional guarantees. For example, the First Amendment also protects freedom of speech and freedom of association. Religious groups have invoked these guarantees in support of students' religious expression and in their efforts to obtain sponsorship from schools and resources for student religious clubs. However, the right of a student or student club to participate in religious speeches or activities on school property may conflict with other protections, such as the right of students to avoid harassment. In one case, for example, a federal appeals court approved a high school decision to prohibit a student from wearing a t-shirt containing a biblical passage condemning homosexuality. Because the student had graduated when the Supreme Court granted his appeal, the Supreme Court ordered the lower court to overturn his sentence and dismiss the case. In another case of conflict, some religious student groups want the right to exclude students who do not share their beliefs - specifically with regard to issues of sexuality.
For example, The Christian Law Society (CLS), which has chapters at many law schools requires that those in leadership positions accept a statement that renounces “unbiblical behavior” such as having sex outside heterosexual marriage. CLS sued several law schools after they denied them official recognition because this leadership policy violated their non-discrimination policies. In one such case The Supreme Court ruled against CLS stating that these non-discrimination policies were constitutional as long as they were neutral from point-of-view and did not target any particular religion or belief system. The debate over whether or not schools can discriminate against religion has been ongoing for centuries now with no clear answer yet. The Educational Opportunity Section of Civil Rights Division enforces Title IV which prohibits discrimination based on religion but private religious schools can still deny admission based on faith while public institutions have been barred from sponsoring prayer or any other form of religious activity since 1954 when Supreme Court issued its historic ruling overturning school-sponsored prayer. Conflicts over religion at school have been around since 19th century when Protestants and Catholics fought over Bible reading and prayer while liberal Protestants fought against conservatives over teaching Charles Darwin's theory of evolution during 20th century. The First Amendment also protects freedom of speech and association which has been used by religious groups for obtaining sponsorship from schools for student clubs but this right may conflict with other protections like avoiding harassment. The Supreme Court has ruled against Christian Law Society stating that non-discrimination policies must be neutral from point-of-view without targeting any particular belief system but it is still unclear whether or not schools can discriminate against religion.