The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life yesterday released the results of a quiz on religion it gave to about 3,400 Americans. The results are being much discussed on the Web, chiefly because Pew found that atheists and agnostics did better on the 32-question test than evangelicals, Catholics and mainline Protestants.

The quiz (you can see the questions here) included a few queries about the role of religion in public schools. Personally, I thought this was a little odd. These questions really deal more with law than religion.

Nevertheless, the results show a mixed bag. Sixty-eight percent of Americans know that the First Amendment means that the government can neither establish nor interfere with religion. I wish the number were higher, but that’s not bad.

Eighty-nine percent know that a public school teacher cannot lead students in prayer. Great. Some may not like that, but at least they know what the Supreme Court has said. Ignorance of the law is no longer an excuse.

But there is confusion over other aspects of religion in public schools. A mere 23 percent know that the Bible can be used in a literature course, and only 36 percent know that public schools can teach comparative religion courses.

How do we account for this?

I have an idea: It’s the Religious Right’s fault. 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.

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.

They have done these things. They have told these lies. They have spread propaganda in a deliberate effort to turn Americans against public schools by portraying them, as religion-phobic.

No wonder so many Americans are confused!

The Religious Right has done something else, too. Leaders of the movement and those who follow them have repeatedly used classes “about” religion as a vehicle to proselytize.

At the recent Values Voter Summit sponsored by the Family Research Council, I listened to one speaker talk about how she and other fundamentalist activists in California successfully lobbied the local school board for a class on religious literature. They even raised money to pay for the textbooks.

This woman seemed awfully excited about the course and repeatedly talked about how important it is to get “God’s word” in the schools. If I were a parent in the district, I’d be awfully skeptical of this supposedly “objective” course.

When courses about religion are abused like this and challenged in court – and inevitably struck down – some people might not hear the whole story. They read about a “Bible as literature” class being declared unconstitutional by a federal court and buy the Religious Right spin that it’s just more hostility toward religion.

The confusion among the general public and the disinformation campaign led by the Religious Right makes Americans United’s job more challenging. That’s just all the more reason why we need your help and support to keep at it.