Religion in public schools focus of Pew study
WASHINGTON – As courts deliberate the legality of religious activity including prayer and Bible study in public schools, many teenagers participate in or witness religious activity on campus, according to the Pew Research Center.
"While several previous surveys have examined the religious lives of teenagers," Pew said in a press release, "this is the first large-scale, nationally representative survey asking teens a series of questions about their own practices and perceptions regarding religious expressions in public schools."
Pew studied five types of religious expressions and activities, namely wearing religious clothing or jewelry, praying before a sporting event, inviting other students to youth groups or services, praying before eating lunch, and reading religious scripture during the school day.
The survey is "important to the broader study of religion in American society," Pew said, "because of the friendships adolescents form in their classes and the way they experience religion in public spaces during some of their most formative years."
Among activities showing the greatest participation, 53 percent of students often or sometimes see students wear clothing or jewelry with religious symbols, and 39 percent of students often or sometimes have seen peers pray before a school sports event, Pew said.
Showing less participation, about 26 percent of students have seen peers praying before eating lunch, and eight percent have seen students reading religious scriptures outside of school, Pew said.
Among religiously affiliated teens, 31 percent told Pew they often or sometimes wear to school clothing or jewelry with religious symbols, 26 percent said they pray often or sometimes before lunch at school and 24 percent reported inviting fellow students to religious youth groups or worship services.
Evangelical Protestant students are more likely than Catholics and mainline Protestants to participate in religious activities at public schools, Pew found. For example, 39 percent of evangelical Protestants reported often or sometimes praying before lunch, compared to 18 percent of Catholics and 11 percent of mainline Protestants, Pew said.
Pew released Oct. 3 the results of the study conducted in March and April of about 1,800 13- to 17-year-olds.
Legally, students may voluntarily pray before, during and after school, but school administrators may not lead students in such prayer, Pew said, based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Still, 12 percent of students in the South told Pew a teacher had led their class in prayer, followed by 7 percent in Midwest, 6 percent in the West and 2 percent in the Northeast.
Pew included students from many religious backgrounds, including Christian and non-Christian faiths. Students who identify as atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular" are less likely to notice religious activities at school, Pew reported.
In January the high court declined to hear an appeal from a high school coach in Washington state who was fired for praying repeatedly on the football field. Similar controversies continue to arise in U.S. high schools, including two 2019 incidents in Tennessee.
"Where exactly to draw the line between constitutionally protected religious activity and impermissible state-sponsored indoctrination remains under dispute," Pew said.
Pew's results are available at pewforum.org.
Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.