The secular concept is substantially different from societies that adhere to religious law, wherein "religious education" connotes the dominant academic study, and in typically religious terms, teaches doctrines which define social customs as "laws" and the violations thereof as "crimes," or else misdemeanors requiring punitive correction.
People oppose religious education in public schools on various grounds. One is that it constitutes a state sponsorship or establishment of whatever religious beliefs are taught. Others argue that if a particular religion is taught in school, children who do not belong to that religion will either feel pressure to conform or be excluded from their peers. Proponents argue that religious beliefs have historically socialized people's behaviour and morality. They feel that teaching religion in school is necessary to encourage children to be responsible, spiritually sound adults.
In the United States, religious education is often provided through supplementary "Sunday school", "Hebrew school", catechism classes, etc. taught to children at their family's place of worship, either in conjunction with worship services or some other time during the week, after weekday school classes. Some families believe supplementary religious education is inadequate, and send their children to private religious schools, called parochial schools when they are affiliated with a specific parish or congregation. Many faiths also offer private college and graduate-level religious schools, which may be accredited as colleges. Under U.S. law, religious education is forbidden in public schools, except from a neutral, academic perspective. For a teacher or school administration to endorse one religion is considered an infringement of the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment. The boundaries of this rule are frequently tested, with court cases challenging the treatment of traditional religious holidays, displays of religious articles and documents such as the Ten Commandments, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (which since 1954 has described the U.S. as "one nation under God"), and how prayer should be accommodated in the classroom.
In Canada, religious education has a varying status. On the one hand publicly funded Catholic education is mandated by various sections of the Constitution Act, 1867. More recently however, with a growing level of multiculturalism, particularly in Ontario, debate has emerged as to whether publicly funded religious education for one group is permissible. Newfoundland for example, withdrew Catholic funding in 1995. Quebec abolished religious education funded by the state through the Education Act, 1998 which took effect on July 1 of that same year. It re-organized the schools along linguistic rather than religious lines. In Ontario however, the move to abolish funding has been strongly resisted. As of 2005, funding from the taxes of those who specifically request to have their educational taxes allotted to Catholic education, remains in place and the foreseeable future. However, a debate similar to the American school voucher debate has emerged with the announcement in the 2001 Provincial budget that a system of vouchers for religious education may be on the horizon. However, this debate has faded due in large part to the election of a new government in 2003.
Some European countries and their former colonies maintain a state-supported religion, usually either Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox Christian. It is taught in a special class of the government schools. This policy aims to build and maintain a national identity. In many countries families can get permission to withdraw children from these classes. Many families with other religions use religious schools. The state supports one (usually) central seminary which trains pastoral staff for the state church. Other religions may support private seminaries, but these are smaller and not as well funded. Religions other than the state religion, even if ancient and respectable, are often deprecated in the national cultures (e.g. they are called "cults" in the news media).
Most of the federal states of Germany, which has a long history of almost even division between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, have an arrangement where the religious bodies oversee the training of mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious education teachers. In one of the federal states this includes Orthodox Christian teachers as well. The training is supposed to be conducted according to modern standards of the humanities, at mostly state-run colleges and universities. Those teachers teach religion in the public schools, paid by the state but answerable to the churches for the content of their teaching; however they must not teach behaviour that is against the law. Children who don't belong to a mainstream religion or wish to opt out for another reason must usually attend neutral classes in "Ethics" or "Philosophy" instead. From the age of 14, children may decide on their own if they want to attend classes and which. For younger children it is the decision of the parents. The state also subsidizes religious schools by paying up to 90% of their expenses. These schools have to follow the same curricula as the public schools of their federal state, however. Currently there is an ongoing controversy about the introduction of Islamic religious education. While there are around three million Muslims, mostly of Turkish origin, now in the country, most of them are not members of large religious bodies with whom the states could arrange such matters. Some religious bodies are publicly suspected to further anti-constitutional values, such as inequality of men and women before the law. However, proponents of Islamic religious education in public schools say that it is better than having the children go to sometimes fundamentalist and always completely uncontrolled native-language "Qur'an Schools" in the afternoon, with which even many of the children's parents are not too happy.
In Austria the situation is similar. Because of its history as a multi-national empire that included the largely Islamic Bosnia, Sunni Islam has been taught side by side with Roman Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox classes since the 19th century. But also children belonging to minority religions, like Jewish, Buddhist and Latter Day Saints enjoy denominational religious education. At many schools, secular classes in Ethics can be attended alternatively.
In France, the state recognizes no religion and does not fund religious education. However, the state subsidizes private teaching establishments, including religious ones, under strict conditions of not forcing religion courses on students and not discriminating against students according to religion. An exception is the area of Alsace-Moselle where, for historical reasons (it was ruled by Germany when this System was instituted in the rest of France), the state supports public education in some religions mostly in accord with the German model.
In the UK, Catholic, Church of England and Jewish schools have long been supported within the state system with all other schools having a duty to provide compulsory religious education. There is no National Curriculum for Religious Education. The content of the Syllabus is agreed by Local Education Authorities, in the guidance of a council comprising members of different religious groups, teachers and local councillors. In traditional Islamic education, children are taught to read and sometimes speak Arabic and memorize the major suras of the Qur'an. Many countries have state-run schools for this purpose. Traditionally, a settlement may pay a mullah to teach children. There is a historic tradition of Sufi mullahs who wander and teach, and an ancient tradition of religious universities. However, the study of Islam does not suffice. Students must pass the state mandated curriculum to pass. Religious scholars often serve as judges, especially for criminal and family law (more rarely for commercial law). Non-Islamic religions are tolerated as personal beliefs, but not as public teaching. Most Islamic countries have laws against teaching other religions, and especially against attempts to convert Islamic believers.
In the Middle East, many Catholic schools are French-controlled so besides learning English and Arabic and French. While following the mandated curriculum, Catholic school students in the Middle East also learn theology and the parocial church's liturgical language.
Similarly, children receiving a traditional Jewish education are often taught some Hebrew, and students at Greek Orthodox schools typically learn some Greek. These traditions generally hope that by passing on the traditional language, the students will also retain a better memory of their culture's history and a stronger sense of cultural identity.
In the People's Republic of China, formal religious education is banned except in licensed schools of theology, which are usually college-level and above. These colleges are state-supported and usually very small, with limited enrollments and budgets. Religious education usually occurs in scheduled sessions in private homes. Religious teachers usually move on a weekly or monthly circuit, staying as guests in private houses in exchange for teaching.
In Thailand, Burma and other majority Buddhist societies, Buddhist beliefs are taught in school, often by monks. Young men are expected to live as monks for several months at one point of their lives.
In Japan, Buddhism, activity, reinforced by public ceremonies and parades. There are also some Christian schools, but the majority of their students are not themselves Christians and do not receive religious education at these schools.