Public education is an extension of the government — it should be unbiased, freely accessible and secular. Yet, public schools in South Carolina are deliberately smudging the line between education and religion by attempting to impose a daily moment of silence during which teachers can lead prayer, according to Slate. This attempt to couple public education and religion is detrimental to students and adds unneeded pressure to teachers.
Though the Constitution’s First Amendment allows students to pray in public spaces, schools should not allow teachers to conduct prayer. Students look to teachers as authority figures, and allowing educators to conduct a prayer service is an abuse of their authority. Teacher-led prayer will apply unnecessary pressure to non-religious students, while also compelling teachers to lead prayers that they do not necessarily believe in.
“The essential part of the bill, the important part, is putting prayer back in school,” Rep. Wendell Gilliard (D-South Carolina) told the Huffington Post. Clearly, this bill is biased in favor of religious students. Public schools are an extension of the secular state and, therefore, should not impose religious ideas on students.
The mixing of school and religion also risks associations between education and a particular religion. In addition to school-enforced prayer time, some religious organizations are taking advantage of public school schedules by using school buildings for services. Religious organizations fall under a special branch of 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, according to the Internal Revenue Service. And not only are these organizations tax-exempt, but they also do not have to report income to the IRS. Clearly, religious organizations are already afforded many benefits by the state and should not reap further gains by using public school buildings to conduct religious services.
In 2011’s decision for Bronx Household of Faith v. New York City Board of Education case, the United States District Court ruled that these IRS exemptions create “an unintended bias in favor of Christian religions.” Despite this decisive ruling, individual school districts are free to rent their buildings as they please. Just as there are laws guaranteeing the division between church and state, there must be national guidelines to separate education and religion.
Public schools should offer a broad perspective on education and promote religious tolerance. Almost all charter schools receive public funding and should respect the distinction between education and religion. Yet, since there are no concrete laws to enforce this separation, some public and charter schools incorporate religion in the classroom.
A common point of contention between religion and education is over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Creationists reject the idea of evolution and hold that the Biblical story in the Book of Genesis explains the origins of life. Even though science is constantly changing and re-evaluating itself, Darwin’s theory of evolution should not be excluded from science curriculums.
Certain schools, however, still present the origins of life in limited terms. The Responsive Education Solutions charter system in Texas uses self-published workbooks to describe biased views of evolution. These biology “Knowledge Units” cast unreasonable doubt on the validity of the fossil record and espouse Creationism, according to Slate. Though students are free to believe whichever theory fits best with their personal beliefs, schools must present the facts in an unbiased manner. By only presenting one view, schools are cheating students of information and creating a gap in their education.
Public education should provide students with critical reasoning and decision-making tools so that they can make informed choices. The goal of education is to foster a sense of natural curiosity and a love of learning, not to memorize facts or recite dogma. Learning should go beyond the textbooks, expanding students’ perspectives and introducing them to different modes of thinking and living.
As an extension of the state, public schools must focus on presenting multiple unbiased views and allow students to draw their own conclusions.
Veronica An is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies.