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Surprise! Survey shows 40% of public school students have seen other students praying

Sebra | Shutterstock

Pew survey shows that contrary to popular belief, a large number of American teenagers live faith-filled lives.

There’s been a lot of talk about the rise of the “Nones” in America. According to surveys, more and more people are religiously unaffiliated.

But a new Pew survey suggests that religion is alive and well among young people—even in public schools.

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. About 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 cross or a Star of David). And 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.

Pew reports that about one-in-six (16%) often or sometimes see other students praying before lunch in their public school. And 8% report that they commonly see other teenagers reading religious scripture outside of class during the school day.

Eight percent of teens in public schools say they commonly see all five (3%) or four out of five (5%) of these activities. A third of students say they often or sometimes see two (20%) or three (13%) of these forms of religious expression in their public school, while 26% say they commonly see just one. And a third of public school teens (32%) say they rarely or never see any of these religious expressions by fellow students (or they did not answer the questions).

The survey also asked about two kinds of teacher-led classroom activities. It finds that 8% of public school students say they have ever had a teacher lead their class in prayer—an action that American courts have ruled is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. An identical share (8%) say they have had a teacher read from the Bible as an example of literature, which the courts have said is acceptable.

Both of these experiences are more common in the South (where 12% of public school students say a teacher has led their class in prayer, and 13% say a teacher has read to them from the Bible as literature) than in the Northeast (where just 2% say a teacher has lead them in prayer, and 3% say a teacher has read from the Bible as an example of literature).

Nationwide, roughly four-in-10 teens (including 68% of evangelical Protestant teens) who go to public school say they think it is “appropriate” for a teacher to lead a class in prayer.

The survey of 1,811 U.S. adolescents ages 13 to 17 was conducted online from March 29 to April 14, 2019. It included teens from many religious backgrounds, including non-Christian faiths, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Other findings in the report include:

  • Teens who identify as evangelical Protestants are much more likely than Catholics and mainline Protestants to participate in religious activities in their public school, such as praying before lunch or inviting other students to their worship services or a religious youth group.
  • Most American teens (64%) say they rarely or never discuss religion with their friends, and only 5% say they often engage in such discussions. Again, evangelical Protestants are much more likely than others to engage in this type of religious behavior; roughly six-in-10 evangelical teens say they sometimes (47%) or often (11%) talk to their friends about religion, compared with four-in-10 mainline Protestant teens, a third of Catholics and about one-in-five religious “nones” who at least sometimes discuss religion with friends.
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