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Religious Liberty in the Educational System of the United States

From the 1980s to the Present


Iwona Zamkowska

Nearly a third of religious liberty cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court addressed religion and education. Numbers that high, the problem definitely deserves consideration of international public. What were the main forces that shaped religious liberty in public education in one of its most formative periods? Did the introduction of religious liberty legal framework in public schools advance religious liberty of students as independent autonomous actors? The author discusses this cultural problem from a broad and complex perspective: both internationally recognized theory of a child’s religious freedom rights and the American models of religious liberty. To cover a wide spectrum of viewpoints, she analyses a broad selection of documents, from state and NGO publications to media coverage.

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In recent years the problem of religious liberty in public schools has received an increased international attention of both human rights organizations and world media. The newly released movie series God’s Not Dead 1 (2014) and God’s Not Dead 2 (2016) endeavored to appeal to international audiences to extend serious consideration to religion-school controversies growing rampant on American soil. The problem is thus important to investigate as it addresses vital and topical issues that both reveal the dynamic transformative processes occurring in present-day democracies and ones that may have a considerable impact on their future shape.

The controversies related to religious liberty in the United States are by no means confined to the sector of public education. However, the state-run elementary and secondary schools appear to be the most illustrative of the problem due to the compulsory character of public education, its formative function, as well as the highest record of legal cases decided in courts pertaining to religious freedom issues.1 Religion-school debate dates back to the beginnings of public education. However, the period of the 1980s onward appears to be most adequate for academic consideration as it was then that—for the first time in educational history—the government-adopted constitutional framework of religious freedom in public schools was defined as the New Consensus on Teaching about Religion in Public Schools was reached by a wide spectrum of diverse educational, religious, and political bodies.

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