Study Snapshot: Religious Expression in Public Schools: A More Nuanced Understanding
Study Snapshot: Religious Expression in Public Schools: A More Nuanced Understanding
 
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For Immediate Release: April 16, 2018

Tony Pals, tpals@aera.net
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Collin Boylin, cboylin@aera.net
(202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell)

Study Snapshot: Religious Expression in Public Schools: A More Nuanced Understanding


Study: “Religious Expression in Public Schools: A More Nuanced Understanding”
Authors: Suzanne N. Rosenblith (State University of New York at Buffalo), William McCorkle (Clemson University), Benjamin J. Bindewald (Oklahoma State University), Laura Olson (Clemson University), and Daniel Frost (Clemson University) 

This study will be presented at the 2018 AERA Annual Meeting 
Date/Time: Monday, April 16, 12: 25 p.m. to 1:55 p.m.

Main Finding:


  • A national survey of public teachers’ beliefs about their rights to religious expression finds that a majority of teachers are religious and believe in religious free expression in the abstract, but object to using religious free exercise in a dogmatic fashion or to discriminate against others in schools or other public spheres.

Details:

  • In 2016, the study authors conducted a national public opinion survey of attitudes toward religious expression in the classroom with a large, nationwide representative sample of 5,327 public school teachers. The sampling strategy offered strong geographical diversity and a blend of elementary, middle, and high school teachers. 
  • The national survey examined beliefs about the appropriateness of religious expression in public schools, finding that the majority of respondents believed that teachers should be allowed to practice their religious beliefs without fear of workplace penalty.
  • Though 23 percent of the respondents identified as religiously unaffiliated, the majority were religious. Seventy-four percent of the participants identified as Christian. Fifty-one percent stated that they attended religious services at least once a month. Sixty-eight percent believed the Bible was the word of God, and 68 percent said that religion provided some or a great deal of guidance to their lives. In addition, 52 percent stated that they prayed at least once a day.
  • Sixty percent stated that teachers should be allowed to opt out of certain activities due to their religious beliefs. The majority of respondents believed that teachers should be allowed to practice their religious beliefs without fear of workplace penalty, with 73 percent supporting or strongly supporting this measure.
  • However, when asked questions that more closely approximated the issues largely defining the public debate on religious expression, there was considerably less support.
  • The majority of respondents did not agree with a company refusing to provide services for same-sex couples, with 45 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing. Support was even lower when the question involved a clerk refusing to issue a marriage license, with only 23 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing.
  • The survey respondents supported teachers having the right to participate in voluntary student-led prayer (73 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing), celebrating religious holidays as religious (69 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing) and wearing religious symbols (94 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing). There was a greater split on the issues of teaching creationism alongside evolution (46 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing, and 54 percent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing) and praying with a student individually (56 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing, and 44 percent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing).
  • On the other hand, the respondents opposed teachers leading a daily group prayer with a class, with only 19 percent agreeing with this idea, or placing religious items on the walls of the classroom, with only 35 percent agreeing with this practice. Only 23 percent agreed that the government should require schools to emphasize Judeo-Christian values.
  • Only 5 percent of teachers agreed or strongly agreed with teachers being permitted to have a student moved from their class because of the student’s religious affiliation. Likewise, 4 percent agreed or strongly agreed with teachers having the right to have a student moved from their class because of gender identity. Four percent also agreed or strongly agreed with this allowance when it came to a student’s sexual orientation. In all these areas, the number of teachers who strongly agreed was less than 1 percent.
  • “This study reveals that the issue of religious expression in public schools contains a deep level of nuance,” said study co-author Suzanne N. Rosenblith, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “While many teachers appeared comfortable with more organized religious expression in public schools, they were equally uncomfortable with using free exercise as a license to discriminate.”
  • Since the Supreme Court decisions in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), greater national attention has been directed to religious freedom and the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. While this attention, to date, has not been specifically directed at public schools, theorizing about religious expression in public schools could have important implications for students, school professionals, and the civic purposes of public schooling.

To request a copy of the full paper, or to talk to study authors, please contact AERA Communications: Tony Pals, Director of Communications, tpals@aera.net, cell: (202) 288-9333; Collin Boylin, Communications Associate, cboylin@aera.net, cell: (860) 490-8326

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The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

 
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