For a lot of American teens, religion is a regular part of the public school day. Yet many other U.S. adolescents rarely observe religious behavior in their schools, and a majority say they rarely or never discuss religion with friends.
Religion in public schools has long been a controversial issue. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that teachers and administrators cannot lead prayers in public schools, and a decision in 2000 barred school districts from sponsoring student-led prayers at football games.
At the same time, the court has held that students retain a First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and may voluntarily pray before, during and after school. Where exactly to draw the line between constitutionally protected religious activity and impermissible state-sponsored religious indoctrination remains under dispute. This year, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving a high school coach who was fired for leading prayer after games, just one of several recent controversies in this area of law.
While periodic battles continue in the courts, what is the day-to-day experience of students in public schools across the country? A new Pew Research Center survey asked a nationally representative sample of more than 1,800 teenagers (ages 13 to 17) about the kinds of religious activity they engage in – or see other students engaging in – during the course of the school day.
The survey finds that about four in 10 teens who attend public schools say they commonly (either “often” or “sometimes”) see other students praying before sporting events at school. This includes about half of teenage public schoolers who live in the South, where students are more likely than those in other regions to witness and partake in various religious expressions at school.
In addition, roughly half of U.S. teens who attend public school say they commonly see other students in their school wearing religious clothing (such as an Islamic headscarf) or jewelry with religious symbols (such as a necklace with a Christian cross or a Jewish Star of David).
About a quarter of teens who attend public schools say they often or sometimes see students invite other students to religious youth groups or worship services. About one-in-six (16 percent) often or sometimes see other students praying before lunch in their public school. And 8 percent report that they commonly see other teenagers reading religious scripture outside of class during the school day.
Photo: Ben White, Unsplash