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Does God Belong in Public Schools?

reviewed by Warren A. Nord - 2006

coverTitle: Does God Belong in Public Schools?
Author(s): Kent Greenawalt
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691121117, Pages: 261, Year: 2005
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Kent Greenawalt of the Columbia University School of Law is the author of a number of highly regarded books on the intersection of law, politics, and religion.  His most recent book is an insightful and very helpful discussion on the role of religion in public education.  Much of the book deals with constitutional issues, but he often goes beyond legal analysis to pass educational judgment on various ways of dealing with religion in public schools.  While he is occasionally critical of the Supreme Court’s religion clause jurisprudence, Greenawalt believes that the Court has gotten it more or less right over the sixty years it has applied the religion clauses to the states and public education (p. 7).  Happily, he concludes that good education never requires anything that happens to be unconstitutional (p. 153).


The book might be divided into two sections:  first, a series of chapters on non-curricular controversies (school prayer, moments of silence, religious clubs, student expression, and parental rights) where Greenawalt is primarily concerned with legal issues; and second, a series of chapters on curricular topics, where constitutional analysis takes a back seat to understanding what is at issue educationally.  As the larger part of the book deals with curricular topics I will focus my attention there; first, however, a few comments on Greenawalt’s chapters on prayer and parental rights.

Greenawalt devotes a chapter to the history of the Supreme Court’s rulings on school prayer.  He agrees with the Court’s conclusions in its prayer rulings, though he notes that the justices sometimes get to their conclusions by somewhat different routes.  For Justice Kennedy in his majority opinion in Lee v. Weissman, for example, the problem with school prayer is that it is coercive, requiring that everyone present participate in a religious practice (or leave); for Justice Stephens in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, school prayer is unconstitutional if it has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion whether or not anyone is coerced into participating in the prayer.  In any case, Greenawalt concludes, “unless the majority of the Court shifts dramatically, prayers that are sponsored by a school directly or indirectly will be held unconstitutional.”  But, he adds, “We lack reliable guidelines when such sponsorship is missing or remote.” (p. 47). Of course, one of the complications is knowing when school sponsorship is sufficiently remote so that speech is private (one area of controversy is commencement talks).  Greenawalt is especially helpful in walking us through this murky territory.  He notes that the current Department of Education’s official guidance on school prayer is unjustifiably permissive, relying on lower court opinions that have not been reviewed by the Supreme Court.


If Greenawalt is wary of school prayer, he is sympathetic to the right of parents to have children excused from school activities that burden their free exercise rights.  In discussing the Mozert case, in which fundamentalist Protestant parents of elementary school students asked to have their children given alternative reading assignments because they found “secular humanist” themes in some of the stories their children were assigned, Greenawalt argues that public schools should protect the free exercise rights of students who are offended “if doing so will not cause substantial disruption and providing an acceptable alternative will not be costly” (p. 185).  (The appellate court rejected the parent’s claim; the Supreme Court did not hear the case.)  There are clear limits (defined by convenience and cost) to how far the state must go to avoid burdening the rights of students, but public schools must make an effort to accommodate them.  That is, Greenawalt takes a fairly strong position on free exercise (protecting individuals from the state) just as he does on establishment (where, as with school prayer, he believes the First Amendment should protect individuals from state-sponsored prayer).

With regard to the curriculum, Greenawalt argues that the historical and continuing cultural importance of religion gives educators strong reason to include religious perspectives in courses, much more than they now do (pp. 27-28, 80).  In particular, he shows over several chapters that religion has an appropriate and important role in the study of history, civics, literature, and economics.  He also argues that “text and teachers that discuss general perspectives on value questions should not, explicitly or implicitly, foreclose the appropriateness of religious approaches” for to do so would impoverish education (pp. 141-42).   The constitutional constraint, of course, is that teachers and texts cannot teach that any religious claims are either true or false; they must maintain neutrality in matters of religion.  But students should learn about what various religions have held regarding the various subjects of the curriculum.  

Like most legal scholars, Greenawalt holds that while the Establishment Clause gives schools permission to teach about religion (so long as it is done neutrally or objectively), it does not require them to do so (p. 80).  One might respond that if schools are to be truly neutral between religion and nonreligion (as the Establishment Clause requires) there must be some balancing.  No doubt much secular education is religiously neutral, but a good deal of what students learn undermines religious ways of making sense of the world.  Indeed, Greenawalt acknowledges that the “overall effect” of a secular education is to marginalize religion in students’ understanding of the world (pp. 83-84) and he notes that “the obvious remedy for religion’s present neglect is for schools to say more about it”—a position that he believes to be “consonant with the values of the religion clauses themselves.”  But, he adds, “a large measure of caution is needed” (p. 86). Why?  A recurring theme of the book is that schools must be careful regarding the competence of teachers to teach about religion—which is, after all, a complicated business.  In fact, Greenawalt’s “counsel of circumspection is not just a matter of teachers being inadequately trained.  The issues can be so complex and controversial that almost anyone should be skeptical of his ability to present the religious perspectives in a detached and fair way” (p. 144).  Hence, if schools and teachers are sensitive to their limitations, they will often teach less about religion than what might be educationally ideal (pp. 153-54).  This is an important point.  Perhaps a little surprisingly, he does not argue that schools of education or state departments of education should do anything to ensure that teachers become more competent to address religion and thus enable schools to approximate the ideal more closely.


Greenawalt devotes three chapters, roughly a quarter of his book, to the controversy over evolution in science courses.  He argues that religious ways of understanding nature have no place in science courses.  Old-fashioned Young Earth Creationism that draws on Genesis is clearly religion, not science, and beyond the pale.  More recent theories of Intelligent Design (ID) are trickier.  Greenawalt argues that ID is best understood not as a scientific theory but as a theory about the limits of science and methodological naturalism.  Because there are gaps in the evidence for evolutionary theory, ID theorists argue that it is legitimate to appeal to design explanations.  (I might note that for many ID theorists the problem is not evolution per se, but the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution in particular.)  But, Greenawalt responds, because science has worked well in the past, it is premature to appeal to design explanations; purely naturalistic (neo-Darwinian) explanations may still be found.  Yes, students should be made aware of gaps in our current understanding of nature, as well as of the potential limitations of naturalistic science, but any appeal to ID is now premature (p. 121).  Indeed, when educators to go further and insist that neo-Darwinism be supplemented by ID, they step over the constitutional line “because such judgments could now be made only on religious grounds” (p. 124).


Greenawalt tells us that he is proposing a middle position regarding evolution and science education (pp. 124-25).  That is, while he is not now willing to take ID seriously as science, he does argue that science education should be open about gaps and the potential limitations of neo-Darwinian theory.  Of course any assessment of the nature and significance of such gaps and limitations will inevitably prove controversial.

My own view is that Greenawalt moves us in the right direction though I do not think he goes far enough.  His strong commitment to methodological naturalism holds design explanations hostage indefinitely.  It imposes, in effect, an a priori limitation on science, assuming that scientific claims, design claims, and religion can be compartmentalized—a debatable assumption.  Arguably, science courses should be more open to teaching the controversies, even when they involve religion, than Greenawalt allows.  The purpose of high school science courses, after all, should not be to train future scientists, but to contribute to the liberal education of students by, among other things, locating them in our ongoing cultural conversation about the relationship of religion and science.  I might also note that Greenawalt focuses virtually all of his attention on evolution and ignores what is at least as interesting and important: arguments for cosmological fine-tuning (or design) in the wake of the Big Bang, and persisting difficulties in explaining consciousness, reason, and mind in terms of the brain and naturalistic causation.  Indeed, methodological naturalism may have a tougher time making sense of the beginning and end of our thirteen billion year history than it does of biological evolution.


Though I don’t think that Greenawalt gets everything right, he get most things right, including much that I haven’t discussed.  This is an important book.  Greenawalt provides clear, concise, and convincing accounts of constitutional law as it bears on a wide range of topics.  More important, this is one of a very few books that takes seriously the idea that religion has an important place in the curriculum (even if not in science courses).  For too long religion has been exiled to the periphery of public education, and has become noticeably (for those who have eyes to see) illiberal as a result.   Greenawalt shows us how religion can be included in the curricular conversation in ways that are both educationally and constitutionally sound.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 152-156
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12015, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 8:59:02 PM

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About the Author
  • Warren A. Nord
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    E-mail Author
    WARREN A. NORD teaches the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where, for twenty-five years, he was director of the University’s Program in the Humanities and Human Values. He is the author of many articles and two books, Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (1995) and (with Charles C. Haynes) Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum (1998).
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