Educators form new group to support teaching about religion

Wednesday, February 24, 1999

A nonprofit educational group will form a new organization to help teachers teach about the world's religions in ways that don't violate the Constitution.

The Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education, which provides educational resources for teachers, announced Feb. 21 that it would create an association for public and private school educators interested in teaching religious studies in primary and secondary schools. The group met at The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. The council, formed in 1895 and based in Atlanta, sponsored a Teachers of Religious Studies Conference at the First Amendment Center.

Speaking at the conference, attended by private and public school teachers, university professors and religious liberty scholars, were Charles Haynes and Warren Nord. Haynes, senior scholar at The Freedom Forum, and Nord, a University of North Carolina philosophy of religion professor, co-authored the 1998 book Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum. In their 221-page book, Nord and Haynes criticized the pervasive secularization of public school curricula and urged that they be revamped to include studies of religion that are constitutionally permissible.

“If we are to take religion seriously, if we are to acknowledge its importance and complexity, then we need to carve out space in the curriculum for courses in religion — or 'religious studies,'” Haynes and Nord wrote. “And just as we require science teachers to be certified in science, so religious studies should become a certifiable field for teachers of religion.”

Peter Cobb, executive director of the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education, said that one of the new association's goals was to provide access to scholarly material, such as the Haynes and Nord book, to public and private school teachers.

“We must have teachers who are thoroughly trained to teach about religion and to respect First Amendment rights and the values of different cultures,” Cobb said. “This group will provide an opportunity to help those types of teachers. We want this organization to be a clearinghouse for responsible, respectable and scholarly materials about religious studies.”

Cobb said the organization, which has yet to be named, would offer a Web site and other resources to allow a network of religious-studies teachers to be formed and for the easy dissemination of ideas.

According to Cobb, the new organization could alleviate confusion surrounding the teaching of religion in our society. “We live in a secular culture and there is a lot of sensitivity around the use of the word religion,” he said. “If we are going to get along with one another, we need to know more about one another. We cannot be religiously presumptive or religiously prejudiced.”

Misinterpretations of several U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s that struck down government-sponsored prayers in the public schools had hindered proper teaching about religion, Cobb said.

As noted by Haynes and Nord, however, those high court decisions actually affirmed the constitutionality of teaching about religion in public schools when done “objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

Cobb added that the new organization would strive to clear up that confusion by serving to “enhance professional collaboration on curriculum development and to support research.”

Haynes lauded the new group as a resource to help teachers give students a truly liberal education in both public and private schools.

“One of the key aims of this new organization will be to promote the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment in primary and secondary education,” Haynes said. “In the 21st century, schools must do a better job of teaching students about religions and religious liberty in order to sustain and expand the American experiment in liberty. How else will we be able to live with our deepest differences?”

Cobb said the next step in creating the organization would include bringing Haynes and members of the council together to draft a mission statement.