These first two responses are of great value in addressing this inquiry. However, in the public school classroom in the United States, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is of paramount importance because public schools in the United States are essentially governmental institutions, and as such, subject to...
These first two responses are of great value in addressing this inquiry. However, in the public school classroom in the United States, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is of paramount importance because public schools in the United States are essentially governmental institutions, and as such, subject to all the requirements of the Constitution. The First Amendment states that the government may not establish a religion nor interfere with anyone practicing his or her religion. A public school, in its capacity as a governmental entity, must follow this amendment.
So, when we consider the school, its administrators, teachers, and students, we must always ask whether the presence of the faith and belief of these stakeholders in the classroom can in any way run afoul of the First Amendment. For example, for years and years, a typical school day began with a Protestant prayer, “The Lord’s Prayer.” This was held to be unconstitutional because promoting one prayer in school is a kind of “establishment” of religion by the government, requiring students to say a prayer from one particular religion. This makes everyone feel as though other religions do not have as much value or importance, exactly what the drafters of the First Amendment wanted to avoid. On the other side of the constitutional equation, the school cannot do anything to prevent people from practicing their respective religions. This means that someone who must pray at certain times of day should be excused so he or she can do so, or that a school should not try to celebrate the birthday of someone whose religion prohibits birthday celebrations.
Now, how to reconcile the requirements of the First Amendment with the presentation of people’s values and faiths in the classroom is a very tricky problem. To the extent that values are not religiously based, there is no issue. If I value honesty and say so, as a teacher or a student, the First Amendment does not come into play. However, if I value marriage between men and women only, because of my religious beliefs, my introduction of that value into the classroom, as a teacher or as a student, becomes problematic. If I believe in many Gods, as do those of the Hindu faith, if I believe in a Trinity, as do those of the Catholic faith, or if I believe in one God, as do those of the Jewish or Islam faith, my presenting my belief is likely to cause some problems. If I am a teacher, it appears that I am using my authority to promote a particular faith, which is unconstitutional, and if I am a student, it might appear that I am critical of those who do not believe as I do, leading to other students’ beliefs being interfered with.
Having said that, I do think that there is a place for discussion of value and faith in the classroom. It is a question of how that discussion is framed. If it is framed as “I believe thus,” then it is a problem. If it is framed as a study of the wonderful variety of values and faiths across time and place, with a proper respect for all, and without making it a discussion of people's personal beliefs, it can be great benefit to all. The more we know about one another’s faiths and values, the more likely it is we can find common ground.