Nearly a half-century after the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling striking down school-sponsored prayer, Americans continue to fight over the place of religion in public schools. Indeed, the classroom has become one of the most important battlegrounds in the broader conflict over religion’s role in public life.

Some Americans are troubled by what they see as an effort on the part of federal courts and civil liberties advocates to exclude God and religious sentiment from public schools. Such an effort, these Americans believe, infringes upon the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

Civil libertarians and others, meanwhile, voice concern that conservative Christians are trying to impose their values on students of all religious stripes. Federal courts, the civil libertarians point out, have consistently interpreted the First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion to forbid state sponsorship of prayer and most other religious activities in public schools.

Despite that long series of court decisions, polls show that large numbers of Americans favor looser, not tighter, limits on religion in public schools. According to an August 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than two-thirds of Americans (69%) agree with the notion that “liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of the schools and the government.” And a clear majority (58%) favor teaching biblical creationism along with evolution in public schools.

Conflicts over religion in school are hardly new. In the 19th century, Protestants and Catholics frequently fought over Bible reading and prayer in public schools. The disputes then were over which Bible and which prayers were appropriate to use in the classroom. Some Catholics were troubled that the schools’ reading materials included the King James version of the Bible, which was favored by Protestants. In 1844, fighting broke out between Protestants and Catholics in Philadelphia; a number of people died in the violence and several Catholic churches were burned. Similar conflicts erupted during the 1850s in Boston and other parts of New England. In the early 20th century, liberal Protestants and their secular allies battled religious conservatives over whether students in biology classes should be taught Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The Supreme Court stepped into those controversies when it determined, in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) and Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause applied to the states. The two clauses say, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Before those two court decisions, courts had applied the religion clauses only to actions of the federal government.

Soon after the Everson decision, the Supreme Court began specifically applying the religion clauses to activities in public schools. In its first such case, McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), the high court invalidated the practice of having religious instructors from different denominations enter public schools to offer religious lessons during the school day to students whose parents requested them. A key factor in the court’s decision was that the lessons took place in the schools. Four years later, in Zorach v. Clauson, the court upheld an arrangement by which public schools excused students during the school day so they could attend religious classes away from school property.

Beginning in the 1960s, the court handed religious conservatives a series of major defeats. It began with the landmark 1962 ruling, in Engel v. Vitale, that school-sponsored prayer, even if it were nonsectarian, violated the Establishment Clause. Since then, the Supreme Court has pushed forward, from banning organized Bible reading for religious and moral instruction in 1963 to prohibiting prayers at high school football games 2000.

In these and other decisions, the court has repeatedly stressed that the Constitution prohibits public schools from indoctrinating children in religion. But it is not always easy to determine exactly what constitutes indoctrination or school sponsorship of religious activities. For example, can a class on the Bible as literature be taught without a bias for or against the idea that the Bible is religious truth? Can students be compelled to participate in a Christmas-themed music program? Sometimes students themselves, rather than teachers, administrators or coaches, bring their faith into school activities. For instance, when a student invokes gratitude to God in a valedictory address, or a high school football player offers a prayer in a huddle, is the school legally responsible for their religious expression?

The issues are complicated by other constitutional guarantees. For instance, the First Amendment also protects freedom of speech and freedom of association. Religious groups have cited those guarantees in support of student religious speech and in efforts to obtain school sponsorship and resources for student religious clubs.

The right of a student or student club to engage in religious speech or activities on school property may, however, conflict with other protections, such as the right of students to avoid harassment. In one recent case, for example, a federal appeals court approved a high school’s decision to prohibit a student from wearing a T-shirt containing a biblical passage condemning homosexuality. Because the student had graduated by the time the Supreme Court granted his appeal, the Supreme Court ordered the lower court to vacate its ruling and dismiss the case.

In another instance of conflicting rights, some student religious groups want the right to exclude students who do not share the groups’ beliefs, specifically on questions of sexuality. For example, the Christian Legal Society, which has chapters in many law schools, is embroiled in litigation over its policy that only students who believe that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin can serve in leadership positions.

As these more recent conflicts show, public schools remain a battlefield where the religious interests of parents, students, administrators and teachers often clash. The conflicts affect classroom curricula, high school football games, student clubs, graduation ceremonies — and the lives of everyone with an interest in public education.

Download the full report.