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There have been recent news stories about Indonesia's plan to increase religious teaching in schools. This intrigues me, as here in the United States, schools can't force students to worship specific religions. However, in Indonesia:

Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country with a secular government that recognizes the rights of six different faiths, including Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

Religion is taught to students according to their own faiths, meaning that Muslim students are instructed in Islam, while Christian students study Christianity in separate classes. Reflecting the country’s demographics, most religious instruction is Islamic.

Would it be constitutional for public schools in the US to teach students the religion of their parents' choosing like this? The idea being that each child is taught the specific religion their parents designate. In my mind, this would require the schools to accept whatever religion the parents stated as preferred, including things like Jedi. I would think this might avoid violating the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the 1st Amendment by not having preferential treatment towards one, specific religion or small group of religions.

  • <comments removed> Please keep comments focused on improving the post and try not to start discussing and answering the question through comment discussions. Thanks. – Robert Cartaino Jan 12 '13 at 18:26
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The relevant legal doctrine for this kind of setup would be "the Lemon Test", named after the court case Lemon v. Kutzman.

Specifically, as this page shows, the Lemon test puts all establishment cases into a three part test:

Three ... tests may be gleaned from our cases.

  1. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose;
  2. second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion;
  3. finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

In order to afford the instruction of the targeted group, all three tests would need to pass. Even as a Christian pastor, I would have difficulty seeing any of these tests passing muster, let alone all of them.

  1. The legislative purpose of such a set up would be to encourage people in their own religion. While this might conceivably be "good" it is not secular.

    The state may have an interest in having its people have "values" but it would be argued that these can be taught without regard to a religious system. Indeed, as this NPR story shows even teaching something like yoga will incite controversy, if parents believe it to be teaching Hinduism alongside "values." Especially in a society that tends to promote tolerance and understanding, I suspect that inculcating individual and separate religions would be argued against by such groups as Barry Lynn's Americans United or other such groups. At the very least, there would be a lot of controversy around such a proposal.

  2. Clearly, this scheme would advance religion in general, over against no religion whatsoever.

    Atheists tend to be very touchy when told their belief system is a religion, and even if the 20% of "unaffliated" (according to the Pew Research Center) were given their own inculcation, there would be resistance to treating "unaffiliated" or "atheist" as a "religion" on equal par with established ones.

  3. Setting up such a system would inherently entangle local school district in religion generally.

    Lest someone say "education is a local issue," it should be noted that every since Burlington v. Chicago, the Bill of Rights does apply to local instititions.

In short, it would be very difficult not to run afoul of the entanglement clause with such a setup. While the Bible can, for instance, be studied as literature, it is very clear that that is about as far as one can go in a public school environment.

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No, US could not do that in the present legal, cultural and political climate, independently of whether it's a good or bad idea.

In the present time, there are strong political forces (who are supported by the judicial decisions) who interpret the Establishment clause of the First Amendment as "Freedom FROM religion" as opposed to merely "Freedom OF religion" - the latter of which is the spirit in which the Indonesian law you used as an example was created.

The most clear linguistic example of this is the phraseology of "Separation of Church and State", the phrase used to back up such thinking, but which does NOT appear in the Constitution (it originated in Jefferson's letter, and was first used by the US Supreme Court in 1800s and only started to be used regularly by SCOTUS since 1947).

The original usage by both Madison and Jefferson was mostly concerning high level issues (legislatively elevating one religion over others, establishing a state Church).

However, in today's USA, the view of ACLU and many others is that no branch of government may have anything to do with religion whatsoever (basically, following the "hostile separation" model established by French in 1905 or Spain in 1931.

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    @Keen - Courts ruled that non-denominational school prayer is a violation. – user4012 Jan 13 '13 at 15:33
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    I recommend you improve your answer by adding that and other court rulings. Right now your answer is little more than an un-cited rant. – Keen Jan 13 '13 at 15:51
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    You're not obligated to post half-assed answers. Just let someone else do the full-assed work next time. – Keen Jan 14 '13 at 15:09
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    @TRiG - "You can not pray" is freedom FROM religion. "You may pray to who/whatever you want" is freedom OF religion. As far as "non-denominational prayer" being impossible, here's an opinion of a noted Jewish religious authority stating that it is indeed possible: chabad.org/therebbe/letters/default_cdo/aid/1274011/jewish/… . You are free to vote any which way you wish, but before accusing someone of incoherence and ignorance, it helps if you become familiar with the topic first. – user4012 Jan 14 '13 at 18:41
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    In which case, freedom from religion is a proper subset of freedom of religion. Also, the Rabbi's position is clearly nonsense, as very many religions don't believe in a singular god, or a god who could be described as almighty. Other religions forbid public prayer. Many religions forbid interfaith worship, making the very concept of multi-denominational prayer untenable for them. – TRiG Jan 14 '13 at 18:47
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A similar thing has been recently introduced in Russia and sparked a lot of controversy. Officially, the pupils have right to be taught their "religious culture" (from a set of traditional ones) or basics of religion study. But each option only if enough people subscribed and there is a suitable teacher. In practice in the regions this was implemented differently. In some of them, like in the Moscow Oblast, pupils were forced to attend the "Basics of Orthodox Christian culture".

While the proponents claimed that all variant of the curse were to be secular, the critics often claimed that this is stopping short of teaching the "God's law", a religious subject that was existing in Russian Empire before 1917.

In fact the critics miss here. The subject in fact falls far from "God's law". It is not taught by a priest (as in Russian Empire) but by a teacher. It is not a study of the Bible.

But what it turned to be seems even worse than if they were teaching "God's law". In practice in some cases, the teacher separates the non-Christian pupils into a far corner of the room and tells them sit calmly and then tells the Christian part of the listeners "now listen how our Orthodox culture is better than theirs" (pointing to the non-Christian pupils). The study is very far from studying the Bible but instead various casual customs are explained (often not related to Christianity at all) and political nationalist agenda, often it is empathised how the Jews killed Christ. This became actually classes of practical xenophoby and tended to attract nationalist-minded teachers.

In fact many of the proponents of the course were describing themselves as non-Christians at all. But rather they argue that the curse should serve as a tool of cultural pressure on the immigrants from Muslim countries so that they leave the area, or at best as a tool of assimilation. One proponent of the course in a TV discussion confessed "I am not a Christian, but a Pagan, but I support the course wholly. I want those non-Russians to know they are just guests here and we are the hosts. And I can tell to my kids that there is no Christian god at home".

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