Mistakes in teaching about religion don’t mean schools are ‘anti-Christian’

Sunday, February 3, 2002

Learning about religion in public schools is important. If we didn’t know that before Sept. 11, we should know it now.

But when does teaching about religion cross the line and become unconstitutional promotion or denigration of religion?

That’s the question sparking a firestorm of debate in a number of California school districts in the wake of media reports describing students “role-playing” Muslim practices as part of a unit introducing Islam in seventh-grade classrooms.

This isn’t a fight over whether or not to teach about religion in public schools. Groups with very different positions on many First Amendment issues agree on the need to teach about religion as part of a good education.

A press release this week from Americans United for Separation of Church and State calls teaching students about the world’s religions a “laudable goal.” And a letter from the American Center for Law and Justice (founded by Pat Robertson) says that it’s “perfectly appropriate for schools to teach about religion.”

But should teaching about religion include simulation games or re-enactments of religious practices? Here again, both sides agree. Dressing kids up in Muslim garb, adopting Muslim names, and re-enacting the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca — activities used in some California classrooms to “enliven” teaching about Islam — don’t belong in a public school.

In the heat of the debate, some commentators have seized on this issue to bash public education, claiming that this is yet another example of how schools think it’s OK to promote Islam or other faiths while ignoring Christianity.

Is that what’s really going on here? Has this latest controversy unveiled nefarious activities in public schools or is this much ado about nothing?

Let’s start with the fact that California teachers are trying to do what the state is asking them to do. California social-studies standards — like the standards in most states — call for teaching about the major religious traditions in various history courses. Nothing too controversial about that. After all, students can’t understand much about world history or current events (much less art, music and literature) unless they understand something about religion.

It’s true that the textbook widely used in California seventh-grade classrooms treats the origins of Islam in some depth. But the sixth-grade text does the same for the origins of Christianity. (California students are introduced to world history in a two-year sequence.) A fair reading of both texts reveals that the treatment of all of the major religious traditions — while not perfect — is generally balanced and accurate.

It’s also true that not all teachers are prepared to teach about the various religions covered in the curriculum. And sometimes they’re unclear about how to do it. That’s why the First Amendment Center and the California County Superintendents sponsor the California 3Rs Project, a statewide initiative designed to help teachers teach about religions in ways that are both educational and constitutional.

The problem in this latest controversy isn’t standards, textbooks or teachers — it’s the supplementary materials used by some well-intentioned teachers to make the lessons more exciting. Dressing up in costumes, reciting scriptures, re-enacting ceremonies may engage the interest of students, but such activities aren’t the way to teach about religion in a public school classroom.

Ordinarily, I’m all for role-playing historical events, staging mock trials and doing similar things to get students involved in learning history. But teaching about religion requires a different set of ground rules.

First and foremost, re-enacting religious practices may violate both the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

The establishment clause problem might arise because devotional prayers and rituals — even when labeled “role-playing” — remain sacred to the people who practice them. No matter how well intentioned, using such practices in the classroom puts the teacher in the position of potentially promoting (or denigrating) religion.

Re-enactments could also trigger a free-exercise problem. Even if the students are all volunteers, many parents don’t want their children participating in a religious activity of another faith. The fact that the exercise is “acting” doesn’t cure the problem for many people.

Beyond these First Amendment concerns, re-enacting religious ceremonies or practices runs the risk of distorting or trivializing the faith tradition involved.

Sometimes it sharpens this point to consider a religion closer to home for many students and parents. Some teachers may have no problem with having students role-play the pilgrimage to Mecca, but would they dare to re-create the Lord’s Supper when teaching about Christianity? I doubt it.

What bothers me about this fight isn’t the fact that a few teachers have (unwittingly) crossed the line. That’s easily addressed.

What’s disturbing is how some people are using this issue as yet another opportunity to attack public education as “anti-Christian.” One news report quotes a critic as saying “we can’t even mention the name of Jesus in the public schools.”

That’s nonsense. Kids are free to share their faith in public schools (just look at how many high schools now have Bible Clubs). And all of the state and national social studies standards encourage appropriate teaching about Christianity.

Instead of making this another culture-war battle, let’s work together to ensure that all teachers have the preparation they need to get it right.

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