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Religion and Education: Does the Separation Between “Church” and State Require a Separation Between Self and School?

by Mona Abo-Zena - July 26, 2013

Although educational efforts have a purported attention to serve the whole child, for many individuals, the separation between “church” and state requires a separation between self and school. Understanding how to balance the constitutional clauses regarding religious separation and free exercise in classrooms and schools within a religiously pluralistic society is an educational, civic, and legal challenge. While there is common ground that non-devotional studies of religion are required components of anti-bias educational approaches and integral to the study of humanities and world history, controversy remains about how to incorporate the personal religious views of students and educators. Given that religion encompasses particular cultural funds of knowledge, how do religious experiences facilitate and challenge learning? How should the personal religious views of students be addressed, if at all, in the teaching and learning process given foci to support the whole child in a culturally sensitive manner? This essay explores a critical and often silenced conversation about the humility and support educators need to help navigate the space between self and school.

While my family was immersed in homework tasks, the phone rang. My ten year old son answered my mother’s call, who eagerly shared the announcement of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics based on evidence that the universe is both expanding and accelerating. With equal excitement, my son responded by reciting in Arabic the Quranic verses that describe the same phenomenon.

Balancing the separation between “church” and state and the right to free exercise in classrooms and schools within a religiously pluralistic society is an educational, civic, and legal challenge (Lester, 2011).  While legal scholars and political scientists have explored these issues (Greenawalt, 2005; Lofaso, 2009), educators have been considerably less vocal in the dialogue about how students’ religiously-rooted learning tools should connect to classroom practices. Ironically, public schools institutionally are well-situated to help overcome religious illiteracy in our public spheres (Moore, 2007).  Educators, students, and their families may have religious beliefs and practices that affect how they orient to school practices and curricula (Rogoff, 2003). Generally, educators struggle to draw from students’ everyday practices and informal contexts (Bevan, Bell, Stevens, & Razfar, 2013); the religious nature of this content adds to the complexity.  

Like any other experiences or beliefs, religious practices inform students’ cultural knowledge. The engagement of students’ cultural knowledge may facilitate or challenge engagement and learning of particular academic content (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). Educators with a commitment to a whole-child perspective, educational equity, multi-cultural and anti-bias curricula, and culturally relevant and constructivist approaches strive to consider the role of religion as a component of how diversity affects education (Banks & Banks, 2010). This commentary addresses the common ground associated with religion in education, highlights particular ways that religion may facilitate and challenge learning and development, and concludes with how and why educators may balance the perceived risks and the common ground associated with students’ religious backgrounds.


Many wrongly interpret the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as tantamount to a ban of all forms of religion in U.S. schools. On the contrary, some have argued that it is a violation of the First Amendment not to include the study of religion in constitutionally sound manners in public school curricula (i.e., non-devotional, intellectually balanced approaches). The United States Department of Education requires that religion be embedded in curricula across PK – 12 grades and subjects. Amidst controversy, stakeholders have sought to define common ground and identified three primary strategies to introduce religion within classrooms (Haynes & Thomas, 1998): 1) the curriculum demands coverage of historical origins of religious traditions, events or communities defined by religious beliefs and practice; 2) current events, novels, stories, or art have explicit religious themes, or implicit references to religion; 3) students raise questions based on their own religious experiences and knowledge.  The American Academy of Religion developed guidelines for teaching about religion in public schools given presumptions that illiteracy about religion is widespread in U.S. society, fuels prejudice and antagonism, and can be diminished by teaching about religion using a non-devotional approach (2009).  A non-devotional, academic approach draws from socio-historical, literary, and traditions-based methods in order to develop students’ working awareness of variations within and across world religions and neither promotes nor denigrates religious beliefs or practices.

A remaining quandary is how to support the whole student in a culture that compartmentalizes mind, heart, and soul, despite that they are considered integrated in many traditions (Mattis, Ahluwalia, Cowie, & Kirkland-Harris, 2006).  In particular, while cultural funds of knowledge (i.e., religious) may facilitate development and achievement, they may also impede student progress based on the relative fit between the content of the religious belief and student’s context.  How should educators respond when students raise questions or examples based on their own religious experiences and knowledge?  What advice should guide the English teacher who assigned a research paper where students could pick their topic, but considered one student’s proposal to write about the life as Jesus as unsuitable (Greenawalt, 2005)? Although educational efforts purportedly intend to serve the whole child, for many individuals the separation between “church” and state requires a separation between self and school (Mardell & Abo-Zena, 2010).


Religious diversity is an important dynamic in classrooms precisely because religion is salient in both public and private life. Students and teachers share challenges and opportunities related to how their religious and spiritual values may connect with and be perceived by others. Religiously infused discriminatory experiences are featured in the everyday school experiences of many youth, particularly religious minorities (Abo-Zena, 2011; Sirin & Fine, 2007). Youth are marginalized in part because they are visibly different (e.g., Sikh males and dastars, Muslim females and hijabs).  In other cases, students’ religious values and related behaviors make them stand out (e.g., abstaining from dating, praying in public).  Educators navigate a range of highly sensitive issues, such as the Jehovah’s Witness student who requests to join her classmate’s birthday cupcake celebration, despite the clear violation of her family’s religiously-informed guidelines.  What do you tell her?


Like any social or cultural context of development, religion and spirituality may promote academic achievement and development along numerous pathways.  For historically underserved or marginalized communities, positive references to religion highlight scholarly prowess that may be drawn on to validate the capacity of child members of the same group.  To illustrate other pathways, a study of Puerto Rican high school students elucidated the dual role of religiosity on academic experience for academically and socially vulnerable students (Anthrop-González, Vélez, & Garrett, 2010).  On a social level, relations with adults from church provided social capital, support, and mentoring generally and during crisis times; on a personal level, religious beliefs that included a sense that God was within them highlighted an internal locus of control, which was associated with higher expectations of oneself and a sense of efficacy.  A meta-analysis documented the effects of religious schooling and personal religious commitment on African American and Hispanic students’ academic achievement and school-related behavior and found positive effects for both groups (Jeynes, 2002).  These positive effects may be associated with how world religions generally promote learning through concrete socialization practices such as rewarding young Jewish children with candies, honey, and positive attention for their religious studies (Rogoff, 2003), which may generalize to other groups and settings. In other cases, religious experiences promote particular academic content proficiency, such as engagement in abstract language and discourse through discussion of Bible stories (Heath, 1997), or children’s development of mathematical reasoning and computation through religious practices such as tithing (Taylor, 2010).  Because these examples of cultural knowledge are embedded in religious content or contexts, teachers may not feel empowered to build on students’ assets.  This omission complicates the race and class dimensions of the achievement gap, as well as the gap between self and school.

Culturally relevant educational approaches are generally hailed as part of constructivist and empowering education approaches to support diverse students (e.g., Gay, 2010).  Interestingly, educators are wary or less prepared to draw on certain cultural practices, including ones that are religiously-rooted.  For example, diverse religious communities use a lunar calendar, which could scaffold learning about calendars and time, the phases of the moon, and astronomy. Particular religious practices may be linked with particular academic content.  Consider how the five obligatory prayers in Islam required within an appointed time may relate to young Muslim children in observant homes being more aware of time as a concept, and eager to learn about it. Discussions of an afterlife or eternal life may help young students develop an awareness of abstract concepts such as infinity. Students’ everyday experiences, including religious ones, may be drawn on to support formal learning.


Depending on the relative fit between cultural knowledge and the teachings of the dominant culture, cultural funds of knowledge may challenge learning outcomes and processes. Consider the personal and class crisis when members of an early childhood classroom discovered ants in the snack area. While the students scurried and began stomping, the normally soft-spoken Som-Jet, “opened his hands in a pleading gesture and raised his voice. ‘No! Do not kill them! They are living things! Black ants do not bite people!’” (Cowhey, 2006, p. 4).  Som-Jet’s intervention led to the classroom’s critical conversation about the value of life generally, Buddhist beliefs, and a relative comparison with other faith traditions, but not all educators or classroom contexts would have supported Som-Jet’s polite challenge.  Students may feel silenced for a variety of reasons related to how their religious or spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof) align with values and practices enacted in school.  For example, because animism and other epistemological orientations may not correspond with the approaches typically found in science classrooms, some students may feel estranged from full engagement with the content (Deloria, 2003). Other students may address the conflict directly, as in the example of a middle school student who was in tears at the end of science class on evolution because she perceived the content to be irreconcilable with similar discussions at home and church.  Essentially, this student felt forced to choose between her convictions grounded in connections to home and faith, and her identity as a strong student.  


Students and scholars enter learning contexts with their own individual epistemologies that govern the nature of evidence and the theory of knowledge.  Further, the learning context itself both explicitly and implicitly defines acceptable domains and evidence of scholarship. Particularly within a U.S. context, social science has generally regarded religion as unscientific, fueling the notion that being a rigorous scientist and being religiously observant is incompatible (Ebauch, 2002). Ironically, common curricular approaches within scientific classrooms in a post-modernist era may not encourage a critical skepticism, in essence treating science as its own “religion” that contains absolute, unquestionable truths.  Alternately, in exploring students’ perspectives on accountability in science, science teacher educators present science and science education as socially and culturally constructed, and with socially informed discourse and argumentation patterns (Warren & Rosebery, 1996).

Broad social lenses that encompass contexts at home, in the community, and

school help to highlight some of the inherent similarities and differences between religion and science.  Namely, based on others’ testimony, some children understand God's special powers and the afterlife and conceptualize unobservable scientific and religious entities similarly, while others recognize a different pattern of discourse between scientific and religious entities (Harris & Koenig, 2006).  In the midst of science standards and the vast histories encompassed in thousands of years of world traditions, one science educator explored how to maintain science rigor, teach about and respect manners of personal significance, and sensitively raise in students an appreciation of why, for example, the theory of evolution has been controversial for some people (Reiss, 2008). How should individual educators across all disciplines navigate this complex terrain?  


Many educators and administrations view references to religion in school as a problem to be managed, and are primarily concerned with respecting parents’ rights while avoiding lawsuits or other problematic attention (Lofaso, 2009). Given the volatility, there is little incentive for educators to explore how a student’s beliefs affect development and learning. Further, the high-stakes, test-driven atmosphere surrounding public education and teacher preparation programs leaves scant time and resources to provide systematic, explicit theoretical or practical training about how teachers may develop complex soft skills to support collaborative relationships with families (Lightfoot, 2004) or to give serious consideration to religion as a dimension of diversity (Tyson & Banks, 2011). Given the amount of variation between and within religious groups, religion being largely construed as private, complex, and contentious, this lack of attention within an already demanding teacher preparation and service climate is hardly surprising.

As educators, we need to recommit to promoting a critical examination of pedagogy and curriculum in order to better engage with students’ cultural and religious knowledge. In order to connect learning in the living room or other informal places to the classroom, teachers and teacher candidates need support to address religion and other sensitive topics in partnership with other educators and families.  In cooperation with students, families, educators, and other stakeholders, we can learn how to make schools places where it is safe for children and adults to discuss all that matters.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 26, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17195, Date Accessed: 10/20/2020 7:41:53 AM

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About the Author
  • Mona Abo-Zena
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    MONA ABO-ZENA is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Technical Education Research Center
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