By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Religious freedom has always been a given in American life, but religious education has had a different road -- a path rarely without controversy as it tries to find a place in a secular and worldly democracy.
While a rise in the number of Islamic schools in the United States is the latest new trend, religious education in general -- and controversy over which religion is more "American" -- goes back to the beginnings of the country, historians say.
In America's colonial days, all schools were religious, associated with different affiliations, like the Quakers and the Puritans.
Even early state-funded public schools in Massachusetts had devotional Bible readings and prayers, according to Perry L. Glanzer, associate professor at the Baylor University School of Education and Institute of Church-State Studies.
But the United States even then was a uniquely diverse place, and there were pressures to educate people the bridge their differences and develop them into American citizens, said Charles Haynes, senior scholar for the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C.
A consensus in the early republic emerged that schools should have a common purpose.
"It was a Protestant consensus -- they thought it was an American consensus," said Haynes.
That Protestant-dominated cultural approach was challenged in the mid-19th century, with the arrival of waves of European Catholic and Jewish immigrants who weren't happy about readings from the King James Bible.
"Catholics complained extensively about the lack of funding for their schools and the Protestant nature of state-funded public schools," said Glanzer.
There were riots, sometimes deadly, over the use of the Catholic bible in public schools.
The Protestant domination of public schools and the prejudice against immigrants in the later 19th century led to the development of the Catholic school system, according to Dr. Lorraine Ozar, director of the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University in Chicago.
So-called "Blaine amendments" were passed in several states after the Civil War to ban religious schools from getting public funding.
Ironically, it was fear of Catholics, not court rulings on the separation of church and state, that did the most to secularize public schools, said Haynes.
"The Protestants were hoisted by their own petard," said Haynes. "They were so afraid of Papist teachings getting into the curriculum, there were no religious teachings left at all....These fights over prayer in the morning that seem so small were big because they were the last things left."
The division of church and state remains, even though the mix of religion and conservative politics that began with the rise of Ronald Regan in the 1980's has worked its way into government funding for schools.
Parents now routinely pay to send their children to religious or other alternative schools, or teach their children at home, because they don't feel public schools reflect their values, or they want to immerse their children in an atmosphere that reflects their faith, Haynes said. The recent growth of Islamic schools can be seen as a response to those desires.
"It would seem to me they would be in a similar position to where the immigrant Catholics were in the 19th century," said Ozar.
The Islamic School League of America, a nonprofit that links Muslim educators around the nation, estimates that there are 240 to 250 Islamic schools in the U.S., serving 40,000 students, a 25 percent increase from 2006.
Voucher programs, popular among political conservatives, tend to redirect tax dollars into religious schools. Charter schools are also popular among school choice advocates.
But Glanzer said there may be a pushback if vouchers fund Islamic schools, given anti-Islamic prejudices held by some Americans and fanned in the decade after September 11, 2001.
There have already been tensions over publicly funded charter schools which offer Arabic-language instruction.
Haynes said that while religious people should be able to choose their own schools, tax money shouldn't support them.
He said that, despite all their flaws, public schools have played a key role in building one nation out of many faiths and cultures, something that should be appreciated in any debate about choices.
Public schools also are more accommodating of student religious expression than they were 40 years ago, he said.
"There's really only one institution in the United States where we learn to live with our differences, and that's public schools," said Haynes. "The less we do that, the more challenging it's going to be."
(Writing and reporting by Mary Wisniewski, Editing by Peter Bohan)