Teaching religion in public schools has been illegal for decades. Teaching about religion, however, is not only permissible, but is gaining traction as a way to promote greater understanding in a world of conflicting dogmas.
The National Council for the Social Studies in June published guidelines on how to study religion “in ways that are constitutionally sound” and consistent with accepted standards for what students should know in history, civics, geography and economics.
“The study of religion from an academic, non-devotional perspective in primary, middle and secondary school is critical for decreasing religious illiteracy and the bigotry and prejudice it fuels” the guidelines state.
Sidebar: Teacher sources for religion studies
Around the same time that NCSS released its guidelines, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed a so-called Bible Literacy law that lets local school boards develop a limited-scope elective as part of their social studies curriculum.
The class, as described by the law, would focus solely on the Hebrew scriptures and the Old and New Testaments to “provide students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky has announced it will monitor how school boards put the law into practice. The group expressed concern about the omission of non-Judeo-Christian texts from the scope of the class. Educated citizens need to be religiously literate about all faiths, not just the Judeo-Christian faiths, the group believes.
“Right now the language of the bill is very vague and the Kentucky Department of Education has not yet put together a curriculum” says Amber Duke, communications manager for the Kentucky ACLU. “The concern” she adds, “is that you could have a curriculum that is constitutional and could be delivered in a manner that is not constitutional.”
Sidebar: Reversing a long decline in language instruction
Why guidelines are needed
Kentucky’s law is not unique, says Linda K. Wertheimer, former Boston Globe education editor and author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance (Beacon Press, 2015).
“Five or six states have passed laws urging school systems to create electives about the Bible” Wertheimer says. “It’s perfectly legal for a school to offer a course about—key word: about—the Bible’s history or the Bible as literature.”
What many people don’t realize, she says, is that many school districts require students to learn about the world’s religions, which is why NCSS clarified the academic aspect. The guidelines emphasize that schools should make students aware of religion but not press them to accept any particular faith.
Aside from the NCSS clarification, the question of how to teach religion may have largely been settled on its own over the years by teachers themselves.
“I did not see teachers trying to preach a particular way of thinking or particular beliefs” says Wertheimer, who visited schools across the country in researching her book.
“Whether it was in the Bible Belt or the very secular state of Massachusetts, teachers were very clear in saying, ‘We’re going to teach you about the core beliefs of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, but we’re not going to say you should follow them.’ “
That doesn’t mean the schools she visited were wholly secular.
“I did see examples of what I would call crossing the line in separation of church and state, but it was mostly at, say, a football game, where they had cheerleaders running through a prayer banner” she says. “There was one school district that had a prayer at kindergarten graduation, and they didn’t understand why that was wrong.”
Sidebar: Can they pray?
No classroom conversions
Elsewhere, some schools and districts have been teaching about religion for years with no problems. In a decade of teaching the world religion class at Brighton High School near Salt Lake City, Jodi Ide says she has never had a parent call to complain or question what she is doing.
Although Brighton, part of the Canyons School District, is home to a large Mormon population, Ide says she doesn’t know how many of her students practice that faith—or any other. “I really have no idea. That’s not important” she says. “When we meet for the first time, all I ask is their names and what they hope to get out of the class.”
The course begins with an in-depth study of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) so the students clearly understand the religious liberty clauses.
“We set the stage to have a really safe environment where we can talk about religion, and the kids know what is appropriate” Ide says. Since the class is an elective, it draws many students who are curious about religion’s place in the modern world.
The curriculum begins with an examination of Hinduism and Buddhism, then moves on to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Students also read and discuss articles about religion.
“That provides kids with a good opportunity to dialog and express themselves in a controlled classroom setting, even if they have differences” Ide says. “I believe it’s important to learn to do that because I don’t think our political and social world are always the best at modeling that for kids.”
Unlike the recent Kentucky law, which focuses on just a few faiths, Utah encourages a broad-based religious curriculum.
“I don’t think you can do a complete study of religion without including the Eastern religions or even Islam” says Ide. “With the issues we have today with radical Islam, I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want students to understand what Islam really stands for.”
The key to teaching about religion is having a strong foundation of not just the various faiths, but of how they are perceived in the country and around the world today.
Even though her course covers a wide spectrum of beliefs, there’s little danger of “indoctrination” which is what often sends up alarm bells when people hear that schools teach religion, she says.
“I’ve never had a student convert or change their beliefs as a result of my class” Ide says. “In fact, it’s really the opposite. The kids who tend to already be religious do enjoy learning about other faiths, but for the most part it really solidifies their own beliefs.”
Tim Goral is senior editor.