Following two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963, organised prayer was banned in all American state schools. This in itself has caused controversy, but so has the actual teaching of religion in schools. The debate has included not only praying, but also the teaching of creationism versus evolution. Religion in schools is arguably still one of the most controversial aspects of the American education system.
Church and State
The U.S. Constitution prescribes the separation of church and state, and this is the main reason why organised prayer is banned in schools. While some people argue that separation of church and state has been taken out of context in the school prayer ban, the U.S. Supreme Court is the only body that can overrule this law.
The U.S. Constitution also allows for religious freedom, allowing people to practice whatever faith they want without fear of persecution. Some view the limiting of religion in schools as a breach of this rule.
Promotion of Religious Aspects
One of the key arguments in allowing the teaching of religion in schools is that it promotes the beneficial aspects of religion, not sectarianism. Allowing children religious freedom permits them to gain a level of spiritual enlightenment, and keeps them away from the temptations of peer pressure and gangs. A poll published by the New York Times in 2001 showed a majority of Americans believed if more people were religious there would be less crime and immorality.
Multiculturalism and Exclusion
The separation of church and state was designed to avoid imposing a single faith on everybody. There is now a large and growing population of non-Christians in the U.S., including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. If religion was taught in schools, people from different faiths could learn about each other, promoting harmony; however, organised prayer would exclude some students who are not of that faith. This could lead to other divisions within the school.
The teaching of creationism is a major source of tension in some schools. Some parents and religious groups want creationism taught in schools as fact, not just as part of an overall religious education including other faiths. These same parents and religious groups often object to evolution being taught in science classes because it contradicts their religious beliefs. Solutions do exist: In 2008 the Louisiana Science Education Act was passed, which allows teachers to submit evolution and creationism as competing scientific theories.
Prayer is not banned in schools. Children of all faiths are allowed to pray and even allowed to organise prayer in groups, but the school is not allowed to enforce a single, organised prayer. This system allows access for those who want to pray without forcing participation on anyone.