As children returned to class this fall, there was renewed debate over the role of religion in the public schools. In two cases involving textbooks, appeals court panels overturned recent lower court victories for conservative Christian parents.

In one of the cases, the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling that banned 44 textbooks from Alabama’s public schools because the books advanced the “religion” of secular humanism. In a separate ruling, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Tennessee public school students may not “opt out” of reading classes that use material offensive to their religious beliefs.

Tennessee Reading Classes

The Tennessee decision reversed a federal district court ruling that the Hawkins County Public Schools had violated families’ rights by requiring children to read textbooks that offended their deeply held fundamentalist Christian beliefs. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas G. Hull ruled last year that the children could sit out of such reading classes and be taught those courses at home. He also awarded the families more than $50,000 in damages.

But in late August, a three-judge appeals court panel unanimously overturned that ruling, saying the required reading did not “create an unconstitutional burden under the free exercise clause [of the First Amendment]” because the students were “not required to affirm or deny a belief.”

The case began in 1983, when seven families objected to the Holt, Rinehart and Winston reading series. Among problems cited by the parents were passages on witchcraft, astrology, pacifism, and feminism. Writing for the appeals court panel, Chief Judge Pierce Lively said the families ...

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