Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Teaching religion in public schools


I chose to address the issue of teaching religion in public schools during the 1950s. I find it significant because it is an issue which is still debated today. No matter how many opinions are given, one solution has never been found.

The book I selected which dealt with the aforementioned issue is The Function of the Public Schools in Dealing with Religion by the American Council on Education (A.C.E.). Published in 1953, the A.C.E. addressed the long standing problem of state funded schools and religious instruction. Should it be a part of the curriculum? Should it be addressed outside the classroom? Should it be an issue at all? The A.C.E. sent out questionnaires to educational and religious leaders throughout the country and found that public schools were dealing with religion in one of three ways: avoiding it completely, through planned religious activities, and through factual study. The A.C.E. concluded that the first policy was truly not an option. It was found mostly in communities which [were] heterogeneous with respect to religious beliefs, and where leaders of minority groups [had] made vigorous and persistent protests against practices of which they disapproved (Pg. 181). Planned religious activity, such as giving thanks before eating lunch or singing songs out of prayer books, was found in all sections of the country, but they were most common in communities where one religion was dominant. Factual study was also found in all sections of the country. However, the latter was mainly found in schools where educational leaders accepted responsibility for teaching religion. The A.C.E. found that factual study could be the best option, ìwhen and where intrinsic to general education.(Pg.83) I agree with the previous statement. As stated by the committee, religion can not truly be avoided, especially in history, literature, art, and music. (Pg. 82) It's justification lies principally in the requirements of a fundamental general education (Pg. 83). Students could go on field trips to different places of worship for example, to learn about various religious practices. This would not infringe on another personís beliefs while simultaneously teaching everyone about different religious and social practices.

Obviously the debate about religion in public schools was not solved in the 1950s. Differences of opinion had existed long before that decade, and almost 50 years later, the debate continues. No neutral territory has been found, and until that moment comes, this topic will remain significant to the development and history of the politics of education.


After listening to other groups' presentations, I realized that many topics in education are interrelated. Although the issue of religious vs. secular study was not touched upon by many groups, the issue of curriculum, or what to teach was frequently mentioned.

I would characterize the 1950s as a period of moral cleansing. In hindsight, the 1950s were actually tumultuous, but it appears that for those living during that decade, a strong social change was necessary. This is apparent in the civil rights movements which began during this decade. McCarthyism is another example of the effort to cleanse society. Although it turned out to be a massive witch hunt, at the time many felt it was necessary in order to purge the country of ìevilî communists. Drugs were also becoming a hot topic during this decade; PCP appeared on the streets, while the birth control pill was made available to women. Because of events like these, it is not surprising that the controversy surrounding religious instruction was renewed, because this decade was one of great change. The issue of religious instruction in public schools was another effort to build morality in the U.S. Many were calling for a return to Christian-like attitudes and behaviors. Still others felt that while it was imperative to be moral, it was not the responsibility of public schools to teach morality. The A.C.E. tried to respond to this problem by offering some solutions. It is obvious that because the topic is still debated today, these solutions either did not work or were ignored.

The question of whether or not to separate religion and secular schools was not unprecedented. The 1930s questioned this issue several times. An example of this was the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which the issue of teaching evolution was questioned. Though it did not deal specifically with my issue, it served as a precedent for similar topics. During this same period, a split in education (religious vs. secular) in Mexico. The 1960s also had similar topics. In 1968 another monkey trial (Eperson vs. State of Arkansas) declared that it was unconstitutional to prohibit the teaching of evolution. This opened the doors for different types of creationist theories to be introduced tot he classroom. A few decades later, in 1984, President Reagan signed the Equal Access Act which established a policy of nondiscrimination in the treatment of student groups who wished to meet during noninstructional time at public secondary schools. (Whitehead, Pg.115) This further establishes the point that the issue of religion in public schools is not a new one, or one that is limited to the 1950s. It deals with many interrelated topics, such as curriculum (how would religion fit into the teaching criteria at a public school; what changes would this incur?), freedom of speech/worship, and many others. It is definitely a topic which has changed education, and one which promises many changes to the future of everyone's education.


American Council on Education. Committee on Religion and Education, The Function of the Public Schools in Dealing with Religion. (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education; 1953)

Whitehead, John W. The Rights of Religious Persons in Public Education. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991)

Prepared by Sonia Pedraza (UCLA)

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