This month, Texas Senate Republicans passed three bills about religion in schools that have historians feeling déjà vu.
The first, SB 1515, would require public schools to display the Ten Commandments in a “conspicuous place” in classrooms. The other bill, SB 1396, would permit public schools to set aside time for students and staff members to pray or read the Bible and other religious texts. The third, SB 1556, would give employees the right to pray or “engage in religious speech” while on the job. The bills are on their way to the Texas House for approval. These bills follow Texas’s SB 797, which took effect in 2021 and requires schools to display “In God We Trust” signs.
The school culture wars have been burning hot in the past three years. Parents and school boards have fought over critical race theory, social-emotional learning, African American studies, the books on library shelves, and more. But unlike past controversies about what is taught in schools, these fights have not been explicitly religious. The Texas bills are, in that sense, throwbacks — and some historians are shocked by the reemergence of a culture war that reached its peak decades ago.
“I had believed that these religion wars had mostly cooled and even gone away,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, historian of education at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several books including, Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools. “But it’s different now because we’re battling over nation and nationhood, and who’s an American, not battling over God and prayer.”
But in 2022, the Supreme Court decided in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a football coach’s prayer at football games constituted protected speech. The bill’s authors and conservative supporters said the court’s ruling represents a “fundamental shift” for religious liberty much in the way that “the Dobbs case was for the pro-life movement.”
The lawmakers see a signal that they can rethink the separation of church and state, the long-standing idea embedded in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
At the heart of Texas’ efforts is a desire to bring the country back to a romanticized past. The new life of this culture war “reflects the deep divisions in the country, and most of all the sense on the part of many Americans, mostly white Americans, that some sort of national identity, or national consensus has been broken,” Zimmerman said. “And what they need to do is, ‘bring us back to the good ol’ days.’ That’s really what this is about.”
I talked to Zimmerman about the Texas bills to determine whether they are outliers, or a modern rebirth of an old fight about religion in American schools. We talked about whether they bear any resemblance to the push against the teaching of history, gender, and sexual orientation, and why Zimmerman sees some parts of the laws as clearly unconstitutional while others are a bit more complicated. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Were you shocked when you saw these bills come forward, or is this a cycle, that religion comes and goes as a focus of school culture wars, and it was only a matter of time?
I have to admit that in one respect I was surprised by this because what we’ve seen, especially over the past 10 to 20 years, is a diminution of religion-fed culture wars. One of the things I’ve argued in the new edition of my book is that the religion wars have very much cooled — wars over evolution, creation, Bible reading, and school prayer, which were ubiquitous in the ’60s and ’70s. Most of the culture wars we’ve seen recently have not invoked religion.
With the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, surely some of the people behind these measures are inspired by religion at some level, but what you haven’t heard them say is, gay activity is godless or trans people are godless or that they’re violating the Bible or Adam and Eve. If you look at the history of the opposition to and stigmatization of gay people in this country, most of it across time, assumed that idiom: “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” But today, Moms for Liberty doesn’t talk about God, they talk about parents’ rights.
What’s the cause of this shift?
There are two reasons. First, the country’s gotten less religious. I think this is the most important trend in the past 20 years that we talk the least about. Social scientists measure religiosity in two ways: reported weekly worship and reported denominational affiliation. And we think in the past 20 years, those things have gone down 20 percent, which is a sharp departure from before. We’re becoming less religious and Ron DeSantis knows that.
The other thing that has happened in the past 20 years is that a lot of the most orthodox believers, really orthodox Christians, removed their kids from public schools. They patronize these Christian academies or they just homeschool.
That takes a lot of heat off the schools and that’s why I am kind of surprised by this Texas thing, because it seems to me like a throwback to the time when more devout believers were in the schools. I would argue that they’re banking on the idea that there are lots of devout believers in the schools that want to bring back school prayer. And I doubt that since so many of those devout believers have left.
Whether these things are constitutional or not, and I think most of them are unconstitutional, I think politically they’re betting on something that probably won’t pan out.
Can you say more about whether you believe this is all constitutional or a violation of the Establishment Clause?
The Ten Commandments measure is almost surely unconstitutional. It would be astonishing to me if it survives a court challenge. Other courts have ruled on this, especially in the public school setting, and have said that it violates the Establishment Clause. The basic principle of the Establishment Clause is the state can’t give its recognition to a single religion. The idea that these aren’t Judeo-Christian principles but have somehow become American ones — that’s ridiculous since the first commandment is, I’m the only God. You have to worship me.
Some people have suggested that the Supreme Court’s ruling about the praying football coach will provide some sort of balance for this. I don’t see any equivalence there at all. In that case, the praying football coach did not say, “Everyone has to come to the 50-yard line and pray with me.” There wasn’t any explicit demand. What they’re doing with the Ten Commandments is they’re making it explicit. They’re saying, “This is the religion of the state.” You can’t do that.
The other bill about prayer and Bible reading is a little more complicated because they do say that it would be open to other religious texts. But I’d be curious as to how many districts in Texas would be down with people reading the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita. That’s an empirical question. We don’t know the answer yet.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kennedy from last term, what do you think Republicans are trying to do here?
I think what they’re trying to do there is to challenge the so-called Lemon test of the early ’70s. In trying to decide if something is constitutional, the Supreme Court said the state should not be in the business of promoting religion. The state should be entirely neutral when it comes not just to specific religions, but to the whole question of whether we should promote religion in general — you can’t have a measure that promotes any sort of religious activity. So clearly, the law about reading religious texts would not survive the Lemon test.
I think there’s some justices who want to overturn that, and this might be an opportunity to do that.
Some people on the court, including Gorsuch, have suggested that they want to revisit the Lemon test. But let’s be clear, the Lemon test is just about the question of whether you can promote religion. It’s not about the question of whether you can establish a single religion, and that’s what the Ten Commandments legislation would do. It is cleanly and clearly unconstitutional. The religious texts bill is probably more contestable, but the Ten Commandments one, it will be a slam dunk.
In what other ways has this fight shifted?
Many of the original efforts to promote religion in schools, whether ultimately ruled unconstitutional, were promoted by people on the political left, not on the right. Some of the Ten Commandments efforts were promoted by pacifists because one of [the commandments] does say you shouldn’t kill. Other kinds of efforts in school, including weekday religious education — which was allowing kids to be dismissed at 2 pm on Wednesday so they could study with the denomination of their choice — was promoted by political liberals and sometimes even radicals who want to teach the New Testament because Jesus doesn’t see color, opposes war, and wants to alleviate poverty.
It’s important to note that today we associate the movement to promote religion in schools entirely with the political right. That’s because, starting in the 1960s, the left got out of the religion in schools business and ceded it to the right. The left didn’t want to erode the authority of the Supreme Court about race, and if you start to criticize the Supreme Court’s religion rulings, then maybe you would also erode its rulings around things like Brown v. Board of Education.
When the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer in 1962 in Engel v. Vitale, most African Americans wanted prayer in schools, based on what I read in the Black press from the time. They were opposed to the Supreme Court decision because the civil rights movement was a religious movement. It’s characteristic of our moment that the religion schools push has become exclusively a right-wing matter because there was a long tradition of left-wing efforts to promote religion in schools as a way to fight racism or poverty. And that’s gone.
One of the lawmakers who authored the school prayer bill said that Kennedy “debunked the false doctrine of separation of church and state.” What is he getting at and what do you make of the idea that courts are trying to do away with the separation of church and state?
Points for honesty insofar as what he’s saying is we’re trying to turn back the clock. If his claim is that for most of American history, prayer in schools was fine and was not thought to erode the separation of church and state, he’s correct. The Constitution was reinterpreted in the 20th century to ban things like school-sponsored prayer or religious Bible reading. But the Constitution gets reinterpreted all the time and in all kinds of different directions. And that’s what they’re trying to do here. I think what they’re trying to do is overturn a whole bunch of court doctrine.
Now when they say that Kennedy shows that we’re in the midst of the separation of church and state or that we’re not observing the separation of church and state, I think that’s incredibly wrongheaded. If you look at that decision, it doesn’t say that the coach can lead kids in prayer. In fact, it says he can’t. What it said is the coach has a right to pray. That’s different.
The First Amendment on religion is complicated because it says two things, and most Americans don’t realize this. It does say you can’t establish a religion, but it also says you can’t interfere with the free exercise of religion. Kennedy was really a free exercise case. It was saying this guy’s a citizen and he has a right to express his religious beliefs. He does not have a right to require anybody else to echo or follow them. And that’s what the case turned on — was he requiring them to do that?
There’s an interesting point in that opinion where Gorsuch says the coach wasn’t establishing Christianity even though he is a Christian, and that if there was an imam praying, the Court would have exactly the same view. So if the Court said you can’t establish Christianity in that case, then the Ten Commandments law can’t stand. The idea that that case is overturning the separation of church and state or rejecting the Establishment Clause, it isn’t at all.
Something else I’m seeing in the rhetoric that these lawmakers are using is this idea of Americanness, that prayer is American. One of the lawmakers said that bringing the Ten Commandments and prayer back into the schools will help students be “better Texans” since the Commandments are foundational to America. What’s the historical context for that?
It’s a precise echo of the opposition to the Supreme Court cases in the early 1960s. Just as the Brown decision sparked what we now call massive resistance to desegregation and integration, the prayer decisions sparked their own sort of resistance. The football prayer comes from them! It was an effort to “bootleg” — this was the language they used and it’s of course a football metaphor — religion into schools. If people say we’ve always had a prayer before the game, that’s false. People started that prayer in the 1960s in an effort to resist the Supreme Court decisions.
Here’s why I say it’s an echo. Remember, it’s the 1960s with civil rights protests, violence in cities, a huge uptick in crime rate, and the argument for most white people is that all of this chaos and disorder shows that the country has moved away from God. And if we want to stop all this chaos, we have to get back to God. That was the argument. And that’s what we are seeing in these right-wing arguments. And, on the other end, African Americans were saying, we want school prayer and we do need God but we want it so we can continue to fight racism. That’s a very different argument.
What do you think happens next?
The final thing I’ll say about religion that I think people in the anti-abortion movement have learned is that it’s not a very good way to persuade people. People in the anti-abortion movement have recognized that if you tell women that they’re gonna go to hell if they terminate a pregnancy or that they’re doing the work of Satan, it’s not a very good way to bring them to your side.
Often in this country, religion is a conversation stopper and religious appeals don’t work very well because they often involve first principles. So if somebody says, “My religious text says that abortion is a sin, so you have to stop doing it” — well, what if you’re from a different religion? You’re not gonna convert, you’re gonna say, “Dude, I don’t share that religion.” So I think what’s happening in Texas is an outlier. And if I’m right about the declining religiosity in the country, I think that even if it passes, my strong guess will be that even if the courts don’t strike it down, I don’t think it’s going to resonate like earlier efforts to reinscribe religion in schools. I think the other culture war fights have more legs. They’re not framed in religious terms but instead evoke the language of democracy so you can appeal to a wider audience.