TEACHING, Not PREACHING: Studying World Religions Can Foster Tolerance, but Public Schools Must Also Respect Students' Rights

By Goral, Tim | District Administration, November 2017 | Go to article overview

TEACHING, Not PREACHING: Studying World Religions Can Foster Tolerance, but Public Schools Must Also Respect Students' Rights


Goral, Tim, District Administration


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 aca demic, 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.

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."

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."

No classroom conversions

Elsewhere, some schools and districts have been teaching about religion for years with no problems. …

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