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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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Chapter 3 Religious Liberty of Students as the Participants of the Educational Process in Primary and Secondary Level Education: Curriculum- and Noncurriculum-Related Content


The New Consensus documents clearly stated that the incorporation of religious content into a school curriculum is constitutionally permissible and educationally sound; the framework of religious liberty in public schools devised by the movement defined the character of religious education as teaching about religion as opposed to religious indoctrination. The proponents of the movement stressed the correlation between the introduction of religious content and the religious liberty of the nation in general, and religious liberty of students in particular; their manifesto declares that the failure of teaching and modeling the constitutional right in public schools will “surely […] endanger the future of […] religious liberty.”525

The implementation of this legal framework, agreed upon by a wide spectrum of viewpoints, was intended by the New Consensus proponents to ensure a solid safeguard for the rights of religious freedom of students. This chapter will attempt to examine the areas of school policy that regulate the freedom of a student as it interacts with religious content both in the context of school curriculum and in the context of extracurricular activities.

Under consideration in the first two subchapters will be both the right of students to be exposed to religious content within constitutionally permissible teaching about religion, such as education concerning religious holidays, comparative religion classes and Bible electives, as well as students’ right to seek exemption from this exposure if they find it objectionable on religious grounds.

The next two subchapters, both devoted to curriculum-related religious...

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