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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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The problem of religious liberty in the system of public primary and secondary education in the United States has been analyzed in the study as a concept of culture, which—according to the adopted definition—is an institutional sphere devoted to the making of meaning. In this sphere, dominant institutions work to establish coherence onto the field of cultural practice by “ordering meaning.” The author attempted to conduct a cultural analysis, or—using Sewell’s terminology—to create a “map of culture,” by “discerning the shapes and consistencies of the meanings produced by the involved institutions, and determine how, why and to what extend they hang together.”1034

The conducted analysis seems to prove that the cultural landscape of religious liberty in public primary and secondary level education is indeed “the product of power and struggles for power” and therefore “variable, contested, ever-changing, and incomplete.” Over the discussed period, one can distinguish several stages in the production of meaning, each marked with a different configuration of forces shaping the concept in question.

During the first stage—via the process of incorporation—the legal system with the Supreme Court as its final arbiter became a dominant actor responsible for ordering the meaning of religious liberty in a school setting. The analysis of the diverse interpretations of the constitutional First Amendment religious clauses adopted by the highest court in the federal judiciary revealed that the process of “ordering the meaning” involved all the stages described by Sewell,...

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