Does the First Amendment require that ‘equal time’ be given to all faiths in the public school curriculum?

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

No. The grade level of the students and the academic requirements of the course should determine which religions to study and how much to discuss about religion.

In the elementary grades, the study of family, community, culture, history, literature, the nation, and other themes and topics should naturally involve some discussion of religion. Elementary students are introduced to the basic ideas and practices of the world’s major religions by focusing on the generally agreed-upon meanings of religious faiths — the core beliefs and symbols as well as important figures and events. Stories drawn from various faiths may be included among the wide variety of stories read by students, but the material selected must always be presented in the context of learning about religion. On the secondary level, the social studies, literature, and the arts offer opportunities for the inclusion of study about religions, their ideas, and practices. The academic needs of the course should determine which religions are studied and how much time is required to provide an adequate understanding of the concepts and practices under consideration.

In a U.S. history course, for example, some faith communities may be given more time than others simply because of their predominant influence on the development of the nation. In world history, a variety of faiths must be studied, based on the regions of the world, in order to understand the various civilizations and cultures that have shaped history and society.

Fair and balanced study about religion on the secondary level includes critical thinking about historical events involving religious traditions. Religious beliefs have been at the heart of some of the best and worst developments in human history. The full historical record, and various interpretations of it, should be available for analysis and discussion. Using primary sources whenever possible allows students to work directly with the historical record.

Of course, fairness and balance in U.S. or world history and literature is difficult to achieve, given the brief treatment of religious ideas and events in most textbooks and the limited time available in the course syllabus. Teachers will need scholarly supplemental resources that enable them to cover the required material within the allotted time, while enriching the discussion with study of religion. In fact, some schools now offer electives in religious studies to provide additional opportunities for students to study about the major faith communities in greater depth.

Overall, the curriculum should include all major voices, and many minor ones, in an effort to provide the best possible education.