How should study about the Bible be handled in elementary education?

Friday, December 13, 2002

The study of family, community, various cultures, the nation and other themes and topics important in elementary education may involve some discussion of religion. Elementary students are introduced to the basic ideas and practices of the world’s major religions in a number of textbooks and curriculums used in public schools. These discussions of religion focus on the generally agreed-upon meanings of religious faiths — the core beliefs and symbols, as well as important figures and events. Such discussions may include an introduction to biblical literature as students learn something about the various biblical faiths.

This early exposure to study about religion builds a foundation for later, more complex discussions in secondary school literature and history courses. Such teaching is introductory in nature; elementary education is not the place for in-depth treatment of religion. Stories drawn from various religious 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.

One court has permitted elective Bible courses at the elementary level (in Wiley v. Franklin, 468 F. Supp. 133 (E.D. Tenn. 1979)). But if such instruction is undertaken, it must be done academically and objectively by a qualified teacher. Children would need to understand that they are studying about what the people of a particular religious tradition believe and practice. Devotional books intended for faith formation or religious education may not be used in a public school classroom.

As in secondary schools, a balanced and fair curriculum in the elementary grades would not limit study about religion to Judaism and Christianity, but would include a variety of the world’s major religious faiths.