Public school’s approach to religion should be academic

Sunday, December 29, 1996

If a school district decides to include more study of religion
in the curriculum, what steps should be taken, in your opinion?

Bill Anderson, Arlington, Virginia

Step One: Make sure that the school district has a clear understanding
of what “study of religion” means under the First Amendment.

Teaching about religion in public schools is constitutional;
religious indoctrination is not. In other words, the public school's
approach to religion should be academic.

Unfortunately, many school districts lurch from crisis to crisis
with no clear policy or guidelines on how to deal with religion
in the curriculum. This was the case in Wicomico County, Maryland,
about six years ago. That school district had struggled through
a series of conflicts over religion in the curriculum.

Some parents
complained about materials used in high school history classes,
charging that they promoted a particular religion. Other parents
were angry about the way religious holidays were treated in December.
Music teachers were unsure about how to include sacred music
in the study of music and in assembly programs.

Then, in 1990, the Wicomico County superintendent asked the board
of education to develop a policy with guidelines on how to teach
about religion. A committee was appointed to represent the broad
range of perspectives in the community. Committee membership
included parents, teachers, and administrators, as well as civic
and religious leaders. Through open hearings, consultation with
national experts, and thoughtful, civil discussions, the committee
reached a consensus on a policy that eventually gained the full
support of the school board and the larger community.

Good policies, however, are only the first step. Wicomico County
wisely followed the adoption of the policy with four additional,
vitally important, steps. First, the policy was widely disseminated
to parents and others throughout the community. Second, administrators
were given in-service training on how to apply the policy fairly
and constitutionally in their schools. Third, teachers were given
staff development opportunities in order to learn both what and
how to teach about religion in their courses. And fourth, the
school district supported the development of new instructional
materials for teaching about religion in both elementary and secondary

Today, Wicomico County has a successful plan in place for including
study of religion in the curriculum. The long, sometimes difficult
process of reaching agreement has yielded rich dividends of trust
and understanding. Religious parents feel that the schools treat
their faith with seriousness and respect. Parents concerned about
religious indoctrination in the schools feel reassured that teaching
about religion will be both constitutionally permissible and educationally

Wicomico County chose to emphasize the importance of including
study about religion wherever it would naturally come up in history,
literature, music and other subjects. Other school districts
also offer electives in the study of religion, such as Bible as
Literature, World Religions, or Religion in America. When electives
are carefully planned using the best scholarship available and
are taught by qualified teachers, they can be an excellent way
to enrich the educational opportunities for students. Electives
should not, however, be a substitute for taking religion seriously
in the required curriculum.

There is a growing consensus among education and religious groups
that teaching about religion is an important part of a complete
education. This new agreement provides an excellent opportunity
for school districts to demonstrate that public schools are places
where religion is treated with fairness and respect.