Religion scholars decry absence of religion in public schools

Thursday, September 24, 1998

Most the nation's public school curricula offer only secular ways of looking at the world, and that shortchanges students, two leading religion scholars say.


Charles Haynes, senior scholar at The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, and Warren Nord, a University of North Carolina philosophy of religion professor, argue in their new book, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum, that the First Amendment mandates that religious perspectives be considered in most if not all public school subjects.


Nord and Haynes presented their arguments and answered questions from a panel of educators and lawyers today at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn.


Besides undermining the establishment clause of the First Amendment, a public school curriculum void of serious discussion of various religions and religious perspectives also cheats students of a liberal education, Haynes told an audience of about 60 people.


Regardless of whether educators believe that religious answers to life's important questions and society's problems are valid, they must nonetheless air them before students so that children can learn to think critically for themselves, Haynes said.


Although the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that public schools must teach about religion, Haynes said, the high court has issued opinions saying that the establishment clause requires government to be neutral toward religion.


“The logic of the court's decisions suggests that to uphold the establishment clause's neutrality aspect, public educators must provide students with more than secular lenses,” he said. “Public education assumes a largely secular, scientific worldview, and teaches students to make sense of their lives and the world in terms of that worldview.”


As he did at a panel discussion on the book last week at The Freedom Forum World Center in Arlington, Va., Haynes cited U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg's concurring opinion in the 1963 decision, Abington v. Schempp. Haynes said Goldberg's words supported the book's claim that the neutrality of the First Amendment mandates more religious study in the public schools.


Goldberg wrote that a “brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious,” in public school curricula is not mandated by the First Amendment and may even by “prohibited by it.”


In that same opinion, however, Goldberg also cautioned that government must not become “so significantly and directly involved in the realm of the sectarian as to give rise to those very divisive influences and inhibitions of freedom which both religion clauses of the First Amendment preclude.”


Haynes added that public schools had not lived up to the neutrality Goldberg envisioned. Instead, Haynes charged that the public school curricula promotes a secular worldview. Haynes said too many of the nation's schools were devoid of enough serious study about religion.


Nord went further, calling public school curricula that ignores religion “hostile,” to religion and also suggesting that public schools were encoraging students to the view the world through secular lenses. In particular, Nord expressed befuddlement at the lack of religious study in public high school economic textbooks.


“There is a vast theological literature on the relationship of religion and economics,” Nord said. “This literature is completely ignored by national standards and the textbooks. We teach science, history, and other subjects the same way, through secular lenses. We must let students know there are alternatives.”


To improve public school education, Nord said, “Religious voices must be heard throughout the curriculum.” And that would require more than simply mentioning religion a little more often during world history courses, he said. Instead, all public school subjects must permit some study of religion, Nord said.


Joseph Hough Jr., dean of Vanderbilt University's Divinity School and one of the panelists, questioned the argument that the First Amendment mandates examining religious aspects of every subject in the public school curriculum.


“I don't think you can say that,” Hough said. “Even the most imaginative legal analysis couldn't come up with that. I just don't buy the argument that for religion to be treated neutrally in the public schools that it must be discussed in economic classes.”


Moreover, Hough said that religion cannot just be “simply laid out by public school teachers without some amount of interpretation.”


Hough also said that he believed that the move away from the early public school model, in which Protestantism pervaded the curriculum, was a positive one.


Martha Ball, a Utah public school teacher and also a participant in the discussion, thanked Haynes and Nord for their book and agreed that “we must have in our fields of study ways for religion to be brought up.”


Ball added that “being neutral is a most difficult thing to accomplish, but we must make the attempt. My faith is important to me, but I believe that students must learn objectively about all religions. I really believe students love knowing about different places and cultures.”


Shabbir Mansuri...
Shabbir Mansuri
Ball's comments were echoed by Shabbir Mansuri, director of the Council on Islamic Education, a nonprofit group that helps secondary school teachers teach about Islam.


Mansuri said students were not sufficiently educated about other religions. “All we know about each other are the conflicts,” he said. “We must know the spiritual side of one another.”


Larry Crain, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, the legal arm of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, said that most public education systems fail to expand students' mental capacity and cultivate their morals.


“The reason so many in this country are having trouble dealing with moral issues is [that] we've not taught the ways of understanding morality in the public schools,” Crain said. “We have come to the point that reason alone cannot be the basis of studying morality. We must have students share stories of faith.”


Crain joked, however, that if the suggestions made by Nord and Haynes were eventually taken to heart by public educators, “I may be out of a job.” The ACLJ takes legal action against schools it believes are hostile to Christianity.