December 21, 2014 · 29 Kislev

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Status of Current Law on Teaching Religion
Click here to learn more about the current status of the law relating to teaching religion in public schools, and the guidelines under which our school system operates.

Two Supreme Court cases in particular yielded the main tests for whether a government action (and by extension, the action of a public school teacher or administrator), is a violation of the Establishment Clause: the Lemon Test from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) and the Endorsement Test from Lynch v. Donnely (1984).

In Lemon v. Kurtzman the Court struck down Pennsylvania's 1968 Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act as a violation of the Establishment Clause. This act had enabled the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction to reimburse private schools (including parochial schools) for their teachers' salaries and the textbooks used in the classroom. The Lemon Test consists of three questions and if the answer to even one of the questions with regard to the government action or law in question is "no," then the provision is unconstitutional. The three criteria are:

  • Does the challenged law, or other governmental action, have a bona fide secular (non-religious) or civic purpose?
  • Does the primary effect of the law or action neither advance nor inhibit religion? In other words, is it neutral?
  • Does the law or action avoid excessive entanglement of government with religion?

The second major test regarding teaching about religion in public schools is the Endorsement Test, first proposed by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner in her concurring opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly. This test asks whether the law or government action amounts to an endorsement or disapproval of religion. As Justice O'Connor wrote:

"Endorsement sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. ... What is crucial is that the government practices not have the effect of communicating a message of government endorsement or disapproval of religion."

For more information about the teaching of religion in public schools, see "A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools," a guide compiled by a number of religious liberty organizations including the Union for Reform Judaism.

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