USA – To what extent is the inclusion of prayer in schools and creationism in their curriculum compatible with the secularism intended by the U.S. Constitution?

By Louise Kellam (2014)

Since its formation, the United States of America has boasted of its “first freedom” (Clinton, 1995) – the freedom of religious (non)affiliation and practice that is safeguarded by its Constitution’s First Amendment, which was codified in the Bill of Rights in 1791 (ibid). But this Amendment, intended by the Founding Fathers to ensure a “separation between church and state” (Jefferson, 1802 cited in Healey, 1970:131-2 ), has been the source of contentious debate ever since, and no more so than in relation to the public schools and the role of religion in education (Pew Research Center, 2007:1, 2008; Clinton, 1995). This debate has played out intensely, especially in the last 50 years, in both the courtroom and the court of public opinion (Masci, 2014a), spanning moral, legal and cultural divides. Liberals have been accused of going “too far trying to keep religion out of schools” (Pew Research Center, 2007:1) while conservative Christians are seen by many as trying to “impose [their] religious values on the country” (Kaleem, 2013). In particular, school prayer and the study of creationism have been the most divisive and, according to President Bill Clinton in a 1995 Memorandum on the subject, misunderstood issues (Clinton, 1995). The aim of this paper is to understand the extent of the compatibility of the inclusion of these issues in the with the ‘secularism’ intended by the American Constitution. To achieve this aim, this paper will first have to seek to understand the scope of America’s secularism by assessing its historical origins, followed by an examination of the arguments for and against their compatibility. This essay will then reach a valid conclusion based on the relevant information.


Origins of the USA’s ‘secularism’

Religion has always had a significant role within the history and politics of the territories now known as the United States of America. European settlers seeking refuge from religious persecution were some of the first to colonise America (Clinton, 1995), and moved to the New World to be able to practice their beliefs in relative peace. Most famous of these settlers were those who came to Cape Cod, Massachusetts on board the Mayflower in 1620, escaping the oppression and discrimination of Catholics and Separatists following Queen Elizabeth I’s Act of Uniformity of 1559 and the reestablishment of the Anglican Church as the official state Church of England (Lambert, 2006:17). The ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ (as they became known) were principally Puritans, and as such, practicing and teaching their religious beliefs in relative peace was of the utmost importance (Deckman, 2004:1; Kniker, 2013:33). All colonial-era schools were founded with strict religious values (Wisniewski, 2011; Deckman, 2004:1), in which children were taught to read and write using the Bible, in order to ensure the religious adherence and moral integrity of future generations (Hazlett, 2011:1), while all local school boards were made up of members appointed by the communities’ religious leaders, ensuring the “religious purity” (Deckman, 2004:2) of schoolmasters and curriculums alike. But while Massachusetts was generally accepting of the Separatist movements such as Quakers and Calvinists that founded it, Virginia was different (Healey, 1970:124). The colony of Virginia had been founded by the Virginia Company of London in 1607 on the orders of King James I to establish profitable American settlements (Craven, 1957:5):

The first settlers of this colony were Englishmen, loyal subjects to their king and church, and the grant to Sr. Walter Raleigh contained an express Proviso that their laws “should not be against the true Christian faith, now professed in the Church of England.” As soon as the state of the colony admitted, it was divided into parishes, in each of which was established a minister of the Anglican church, endowed with a fixed salary…To meet these expenses all the inhabitants of the churches were taxed whether they were or not, members of the established church (Ford, 1892:52).

As this suggests, much like under the Act of Uniformity in England, which fined citizens for not agreeing with or attending the Anglican Church, Quakers and other Separatist sects became the objects of particularly vicious laws and penalties within Virginia (Healey, 1970:124). James Madison, one of the original ‘Founding Fathers’ following the American War of Independence and the “Father of the Constitution” (Ketcham, 1971:229), feared as much, and warned the people of Virginia in a Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments (Madison, 1785) of the dangers of the rule of the “Tyrants” (ibid) created by religious power and instead encouraged religious tolerance and peace (ibid). Likewise, Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States and a fellow of Madison’s, came to the conclusion that any alliance between church and state was unmitigated evil (Healey, 1970:126). He explained his (and his fellow leaders) rationale in a letter of response to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut in 1802, who had expressed their concern that the Constitution had want for protection of religious liberty:

Believing… that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, ‘ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State (cited in Healey, 1970:131-2).

These beliefs led to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the first two clauses of which stated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (1791). Accordingly these clauses became known as Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses, and have been the foundation of the contentious debate over the role of religion in education ever since. America’s ‘secularism’ was founded on the belief that government had no right to interfere in the private lives of its citizens, and certainly didn’t wish to impose any set of beliefs on the population that was already hugely varied in terms of faith and culture.

Generally, the theory of secularisation posits that, given the advances made in science and philosophy following the Enlightenment era, functions previously influenced solely by religion and religious institutions (i.e. the Church) would become achieved by more rational, scientific establishments (Christoyannopoulos, 2014; Fox, 2008:12-13). Yet while secularisation became prevalent in Europe following the French Revolution and Enlightenment era, the USA became somewhat of an anomaly (Norris and Inglehart, 2011:2-4; Kniker, 2013:33) due to its relatively stable church attendance figures (Norris and Inglehart, 2011:4) and high religiosity compared to its European counterparts (Pew Research Center, 2008:19). Unlike France, for example, the secularism of the United States has not become as pervasive, with Americans preferring a passive form over France’s more dominant approach (Kuru, 2009:29). This, along with the fairly ambiguous language within the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses themselves, has “left no clear guidelines for education policymakers” (Kniker, 2013:33) and thus places more pressure on the interpretation of the Constitution by the courts, most significantly the Supreme Court, which has ultimate and appellate – i.e. right to overrule previous decisions – authority (Cox, 1976:366-367) over all federal and state court cases.

The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 initially did not cause significant public dispute, due to the more pressing concerns of the time such the Civil War, slavery and subsequent Reconstruction (Masci, 2009b). But the book did cause ripples within the academic community, and by the beginning of the 20th century men such as William James Bryan began using newspapers to broadcast his opinions to a wider audience (Deckman, 2004:4) that was soon taken as a banner call to many Christians unhappy with the removal of religious values and moral integrity from American public life (Kniker, 2013:38). Simply put, Darwin offered a scientific theory which posited that all species on Earth, including humans, had descended from a common ancestor by means of speciation over thousands of years, caused by random variations in environment and situation (Scott, 2006). This fundamentally contradicted the Bible’s version of creation, which was set out in the Bible’s first chapter, Genesis, and stipulated that God brought every living thing into existence around 10,000 years ago in its present form (ibid).This had been the accepted dogma of the Christian Church for hundreds of years. But while many faiths and denominations understood the significance of the scientific evidence which followed the publication of Darwin’s work and worked evolutionary theory into their on religious beliefs, such as the Catholic Church’s Theistic Evolution (ibid), a majority of the Protestant Church rejected Darwin’s theory outright. Between 1921 and 1929, 45 anti-evolution bills were proposed in 21 different state legislatures (Deckman, 2004:3) in an organised attempt by “fundamentalist Christians” (ibid) to cease the introduction of Darwinian Evolutionary Theory into school classrooms (ibid).


Incompatibility of prayer and creationism with U.S. constitutional secularism

Since the ascendency of the issues of school-sponsored prayer and creationism in the public sphere, District, State and Supreme courts have been under extreme pressure from both supporters of a strong religious presence in education, and advocates of further secularisation, to ratify the constitutional position of the government and to guide future government policy and procedure.

Cases such as Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) were some of the first Supreme Court rulings regarding school prayer and the teaching of evolution, and created important precedent for future cases. Engel v. Vitale (1962) was considered a landmark case when it held that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment proscribed the use of a school-sponsored prayer in public schools, which had been the custom within numerous States (Pew Research Center, 2007:3). Furthermore a year later in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) the Court ruled more broadly that any school sponsorship of religious activities such as prayer groups or bible classes is unconstitutional, and created the constitutional doctrine that all government action requires a secular purpose (Pew, 2007:4).

In terms of the conflict between Creationists and supporters of Evolutionary Theory, the significant portion of the debate has taken place within the “Bible Belt” of the Southern and mid-Western States – i.e. the area in which fundamentalist Protestant and evangelical Christian beliefs have always been most prevalent within the USA (Pew, 2008, 2009). Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) led to the Supreme Court overruling Louisiana law which required the teaching of creation science in public schools alongside evolution as unconstitutional, given that it was proven that this specific law was created with the intention of advancing a religious dogma. But most famous of these legal cases was the Scopes Trial of 1925 (Masci, 2009b) which was instigated when evangelical Christian leaders such as Bryan succeeded in banning the teaching of evolution theory in Tennessee in 1925, when it was made a crime to teach “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of Man as taught in the bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal” (ibid). The American Civil Liberties Union, a pro-evolution organisation, offered to defend any teacher who was willing to break this law, in order to create a legal debate as to Creationism’s validity. John Scopes agreed, and the ensuing trial was one of the first covered so extensively by the media, and became more about the court of public opinion that the legal consequences (ibid). The trial was a coup for the pro-evolution camp, which although saw Scopes fined and prosecuted (a conviction which was later overturned), it created massive amounts of positive publicity for Darwinism, which up until this point had been mistrusted and ridiculed by the American public (ibid).

Such cases partly resulted in the foundation of the influential evangelical-led Christian Right during the 1960s/70s (Kuru, 2009:41) which during the Raegan administration of the 1980s became affiliated heavily with the Republican Party (ibid:42). Raegan in particular was a strong advocate of prayer in schools (Heineman, 1998:132; Kniker, 2013:38) and a supporter of the Christian Right’s cause, attempting on several occasions to advocate an amendment to the Constitution (ibid). Furthermore, the influence of the Christian Right in local school boards has been significant (Deckman, 2004:124). School Boards still hold considerable power in public school life, and the election of many conservative Christians to the Boards concerns many (ibid:125). It also disadvantages the secular cause, and violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment by using a State institution to promote singular religious beliefs and impose them on state-funded public schools (ibid). Many School Board Decisions have had to be overturned by Supreme Courts due to their religious intentions being referred to as unconstitutional, and as these decisions have so far usually concerned school-sponsored prayer and the teaching of Creationism, it would seem that to some extent, these issues are incompatible with the legal secular requirements set out by the U.S. Constitution.


Compatibility of prayer and creationism with U.S. constitutional secularism

The Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution’s secures the government’s neutrality regarding religion by prohibiting government from assisting religion, but also barring them from impeding it (Kniker, 2013:33).

In terms of religion in schools, there are arguments that the debate has been blown out of proportion. Despite President Bill Clinton’s Memorandum on Religious Expression in Public Schools (1995) attempting to clear up the issue, many Americans still believe “restrictions on religion are tighter than they really are” (Kaleem, 2013). For example, only 36% of those surveyed by Pew Research Center (2010) knew that teachers are allowed to lead classes on comparative religion, while only 23% knew that teachers are allowed to read from the Bible as a literary text (ibid), despite the Supreme Court has long indicated that the Bible has “literary and historic” (Pew, 2010; Abington School District v. Schempp, 1963) qualities that would be beneficial to a rounded, secular curriculum (ibid). Similarly, in a 1995 statement endorsed by 24 major education and religious organisations, entitled “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy” (cited in Haynes, 2011:11):

Public school may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education (cited in Haynes, 2011:11).

Tennessee created a legal precedent in 2012 by passing legislature through the State Senate that allows teachers “to question and criticise controversial scientific theories” (Huffington Post, 2012) such as evolution. By allowing and encouraging students to “challenge current scientific thought and theory” (ibid) many have accused Tennessee state legislature of allowing the teaching of Creationism, or Intelligent Design in an indirect manner (ibid) yet despite protests there has been little legal opposition from the Courts as of yet, which has encouraged other states such as Oklahoma, New Hampshire and Missouri to consider similar bills. The argument being stated by many pro-Creationists is that all theories should be open to criticism and scrutiny (Scott, 2006), and many Americans believe that if Darwinism can be criticised then other options, like Creation Science and Intelligent Design, must be discussed as alternatives (ibid).

Public opinion has a significant impact on the political sphere. The United States’ constitutional ambivalence to religion appears to contradict the personal views of a majority of its population, especially in terms of Christianity. According to a survey conducted the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life on the U.S. Religious Landscape in 2008, the USA is “highly religious” (2008:19), particularly in comparison to its European counterparts (ibid.). England, which has its own official state church, the Church of England, can claim only 59% Christian affiliation with high religious diversity, non-affiliation and secularisation (Lipka, 2014), whereas in the USA the number of Christians is approximately 73% of the population (Pew Research Center, 2012). Indeed, according to Pew Research Center (2008:5), more than nine-in-ten (92%) present-day U.S. citizens believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit. Overall, statistics provide a picture that a majority of the overall American population favour a religious aspect to public education in terms of the moral and spiritual values that it provides (Kaleem, 2013). In particular, 57% of the population disprove of the Supreme Court’s ban on School Prayer (ibid) while 78% of Americans believe a Divine Being had a hand in the development of Human Beings, whether through fixist Creationism a more broad notion that simply we could not have evolved without some form of intelligent designer. These statistics would suggest that while the Founding Fathers hoped to Separate Church from Federal State, a great proportion of the country believes that schools are not meant to be religion-free zones (Clinton, 1995; Kaleem, 2013) and their views must be expressed and taught as well.



There is a very undogmatic approach to religion that seems to derive from America’s highly diverse population (Pew, 2008) and is also unique place in Western politics as a vocally religious population (Kniker, 2013:33). Given the preceding arguments, it is evident that the U.S. Constitution does little to prohibit people’s beliefs and practices. What it, and the Founding Fathers who created the Constitution (such as Madison and Jefferson) have tried to avoid is the notion of federal government (specifically) imposing a certain religion, denomination or creed imposing on unwilling citizens that would be reminiscent of the 19th century bible wars between Anglican Protestants, Separatists and Catholics and to avoid the “tyranny” (Madison, 1785) of the majority against those religious minorities that the USA claims to protect. The extent of school prayer and Creationism’s compatibility with U.S. secularism intended within the Constitution is therefore legally clear – it must not impose Christianity upon those of different faiths. But many faiths and religions have a form of Creation dogma that relates to the Christian view, and many Christians support a version of evolution that can be related to their own beliefs (Pew Research Center, 2013). And prayer is not just limited to Christians. As has been pointed out at various times, including by the U.S. Supreme Court, public schools can, and should, be able to teach about religion, where appropriate, as part of a complete education (Haynes, 2011:13) that is inclusive rather than oppressive. School Prayer and Creationism as concepts which bridge gaps between religions and do not seek to persecute or impose are therefore compatible with U.S. values set out within the Constitution.



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One thought on “USA – To what extent is the inclusion of prayer in schools and creationism in their curriculum compatible with the secularism intended by the U.S. Constitution?

  1. The structure is clear and coherent, with a good intro and conclusion, and good signposting. At the same time the intro could end with a slightly more detailed outline of the argument.

    The analysis is very good overall, clearly knowledgeable and covering a number of good points well. At the same time, the specific question could be returned to a little more frequently and explicitly. The essay could also perhaps discuss in further critical depth what kind of prayer and what kind of inclusion of Creationism are likely to remain unconstitutional – because after all, although both may be acceptable when done in specific ways, both could also be problematic depending on how this is done in practice. Indeed, the essay could have considered prayer in particular in a bit more depth, as much of the analysis is focused on creationism and, in the end, prayer isn’t discussed in as much depth.

    The essay is also clearly well researched, in good depth and breadth, and demonstrating very good knowledge and understanding of your case study.

    In short, this is a very good essay as is, but there could be a little more critical discussion of the types of prayer and inclusions of creationism which may remain unconstitutional, and there could have been a bit more on prayer more generally.


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