Teaching about religions in the public schools

It’s completely OK if done objectively and with respect

Photo by Tom Angel

Bruce Grelle is Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Chico State University; director, Religion and Public Education Resource Center (RPERC); member, Statewide Steering Committee, California 3Rs Project.

For more: For guidance on the constitutional and educational issues that arise in teaching about religion in public schools, the CA 3Rs Project recommends that educators consult “Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools,” published by the First Amendment Center and available online at: freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID= 3979.

Some parents and teachers recently have expressed outrage at the hypocrisy of the public schools, claiming that, “We can’t even mention the name of Jesus in the public schools, but … they teach Islam as the true religion, and students are taught how to pray to Allah.”

In the wake of Sept. 11, a number of newspapers, Internet sites and radio talk shows have alleged that California public schools are indoctrinating students in the tenets of Islam as part of the seventh-grade world history curriculum. The goal is “to force seventh-graders to participate in Muslim worship activities…,” charges Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the legal arm of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.

“Can you imagine the barrage of lawsuits and problems we would have from the ACLU if Christianity were taught in the public schools, and if we tried to teach about the contributions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Apostle Paul? But when it comes to furthering the Islamic religion in the public schools, there is not one word from the ACLU, People for the American Way or anybody else. This is hypocrisy.”

A few have even charged that the “course” on Islam is “a tool, not only to engender sympathy and support for the Muslim cause, but also for recruitment.” After all, can it be an accident that John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban,” was a product of the California schools?

As frequently happens when the topic of religion and public education comes up, those who have some religious or political axe to grind have fanned the flames of this recent controversy. It has also been fueled by widespread confusion regarding the First Amendment principles that set the legal framework for dealing with religion in public education and by ignorance about the place of religion in the curriculum of California’s schools.

In the school prayer cases of the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school sponsorship and organization of religious activities such as group prayer and devotional Bible reading are violations of the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment. However, the high court also sought to make it clear that an academic approach to learning and teaching about religion in the public schools is perfectly consistent with First Amendment principles.

Indeed, as Justice Tom Clark wrote in the case of Abington School District v. Schempp, “… [I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historical qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible and of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment….”

Contrary to the charges leveled against the public schools in the recent controversy, the seventh-grade unit on Islam was not introduced as a response to Sept. 11. It has been part of the curriculum since 1988, when the state adopted the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, which stressed the importance of religion in human history and stated that “students must become familiar with the basic ideas of the major religions and ethical traditions of each time and place.”

To understand why individuals and groups acted as they did, we must see what values and assumptions they held, what they honored, what they sought, and what they feared. By studying a people’s religion and philosophy as well as their folkways and traditions, we gain an understanding of their ethical and moral commitments. By reading the texts that people revere, we gain important insights into their thinking. The study of religious beliefs and other ideological commitments helps explain both cultural continuity and cultural conflict.

As for the charge that Islam is being promoted by the curriculum while Christianity and other religions cannot even be mentioned, this is simply false. Islam is one of many civilizations covered in the world history and geography sequence for grades six and seven. In grade six, the focus is on ancient history and includes attention to the Ancient Hebrews, the origins and significance of Judaism, the life and teachings of Jesus as described in the New Testament, “and the contribution of St. Paul the Apostle to the definition and spread of Christian beliefs (e.g., belief in the Trinity, resurrection, salvation).”

The focus of grade seven is on medieval and early modern history. In addition to analyzing the “civilizations of Islam in the Middle Ages,” students are expected to learn about the civilizations of China, sub-Saharan Africa, Japan, Europe, Meso-America, and the Andes during the medieval period. Students also analyze the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Reason. Clearly, Islam is not singled out for favored treatment.

But what about the charges that some schools are encouraging students to participate in Muslim worship practices? Part of what sparked the current controversy were reports that some teachers use activities such as having students dress up in Muslim garb, adopt an Arabic name, and re-enact daily prayers and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) when teaching about Islam.

While role-playing and simulations are often effective techniques for making history come alive for students, special problems arise when the topic is religion. These problems were addressed in a press advisory issued in February by the California 3 Rs Project, a statewide program for finding common ground on issues of religion and values in public schools. There are several reasons why the 3 Rs Project strongly advises against re-enacting religious practices in public schools.

First, it risks blurring the legal distinction between teaching about religion and school-sponsored practice of religion. As we have seen, the former is an indispensable part of a good education and is required by the California history/social-science curriculum framework, while the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the latter.

Second, it risks trivializing and caricaturing the sacred practices of the religion that is being studied. It is more respectful and educationally sound to view a video of real Muslims practicing their faith than to have a group of seventh-graders impersonating Muslims and pretending to pray.

Third, role-playing risks putting students in the position of participating in activities that may violate their (or their parents’) consciences.

The public schools exist to serve Americans from all religious and non-religious faiths and backgrounds. Mistakes that may have been made by some teachers when teaching about Islam do not mean that the public school system is promoting Islam, nor do they mean that teachers should sidestep the topic of religion in order to avoid controversy. Rather than sensationalizing these mistakes and using them to undermine support for public education, we should join together—religionists and secularists, liberals and conservatives—in seeking to prepare and support teachers in their efforts to teach about religion in an educationally sound and constitutionally permissible fashion. Failure to do so will deny students the knowledge they will need to live together peacefully in an increasingly complex and religiously pluralistic world.