As I noted yesterday, it’s Public Schools Week, a time to celebrate and defend our public schools, which educate 90 percent of America’s children, from ill-informed, unwarranted attacks.

Many of these attacks center on the role of religion in public education. This issue has been a source of contention for years, and Religious Right groups have done all they can to spread confusion about it. As part of their anti-public schools campaign, these organizations have tried to portray public schools as unrelentingly hostile to religion.

The truth is that public schools must be neutral in matters of religion – they can’t interfere with students’ religious beliefs. But that does not mean our schools are “religion-free zones,” as the far right often claims.

Americans deserve to know what’s really going on when it comes to religion in public schools. In this post, I will debunk five common Religious Right myths about this issue. 

Children can’t pray in public schools. They can pray, all right, but the decision to pray must be their own. The Supreme Court in 1962 struck down programs of required, compulsory prayer in public schools. In New York, site of the case Engel v. Vitale, public schools were encouraged to lead children in the recitation of a prayer composed by a bureaucratic body. The high court ruled that it’s not the business of government agencies to write prayers and compel students to say them. But that doesn’t mean young people can’t pray on their own in public school, and many undoubtedly do so. At the secondary school level, a federal law protects the right of students to form voluntary religious clubs alongside other types of clubs, which young people are free to join or not as they see fit.

The Bible has been banned from public schools. The Bible has not been banned from public schools, but requiring or pressuring children to read verses from it as a devotional exercise has been. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp that a Pennsylvania law that mandated that every school day begin with recitation of 10 verses from the “Holy Bible” was unconstitutional. The high court ruled that forcing students to take part in a religious exercise violated the right of conscience. But the court did not rule that Bibles and other religious books couldn’t be used in public school courses in an objective manner or to teach about religion in a fair-minded way. Also, students may bring Bibles and other religious books to schools and read them during any free time they may have.

Public schools can’t teach about religion. Public schools can teach about religion objectively, and many do so. Information about religion can be woven into classes on history, art, literature and other disciplines. As long as the approach is objective and the intent is to impart information and not proselytize, there won’t be a problem.

Public schools affirmatively promote atheism. This is common charge from Religious Right groups, but they’ve offered no evidence of it. For public schools to promote atheism, they would have to be telling children that there is no God. If this were happening, we would know about it. In fact, the more common problem is for some public schools to go in the other direction and promote the majority religion – usually conservative Christianity. Public schools must remain neutral on matters of theology, but neutrality does not equate with atheism.

Public schools offer no moral instruction. This charge is a gross oversimplification. It’s true that public schools can’t sponsor prayer or other religious activities, but they can and do work to instill a sense of ethics and morals in students. Public schools promote cooperative learning, encourage tolerance for different points of view and promote shared civic values. Schools reward good behavior and punish infractions such as cheating, lying and disrupting class. In this sense, public schools reflect and enforce the commonly held values that are embraced by larger society.

Students can learn more about their religious freedom rights in public schools through AU’s “Know Your Rights” project.