Report says religion course promotes religious freedom

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Most Americans like the idea of “teaching about religion” in public schools — at least until educators start to take it seriously.

Then the questions start: Will teachers be fair and objective? How will my faith be taught? What will be the impact on students?

During the decades-long debate over the role of religion in the public school curriculum, answers to questions like these have been largely anecdotal, based on good stories spotlighting successful teachers or bad stories featuring conflicts over teacher bias or poor textbooks.

Now, at long last, we have some answers based on empirical data, rather than politics or emotion. On May 8, the First Amendment Center released “Learning About World Religions in Public Schools,” the first study of the effects on students of in-depth treatment of religion in a public school.

The authors of the study, researchers Emile Lester and Patrick Roberts, focus on a world-religions course required — that’s right, required — of all 9th-grade students in Modesto, Calif., city schools. Begun in 2000, Modesto’s course is part of the district’s effort to create a “safe school” environment by helping students understand religious diversity — and respect religious liberty. Two weeks are devoted to discussion of America’s tradition of religious freedom for people of all faiths and none. The remaining seven weeks focus on six of the world’s major faiths.

As far as I know, this is a unique experiment in American public schools. Most schools include some discussion of religion in history or literature classes (sometimes substantive, often superficial) and a few offer elective courses in world religions or the Bible. But a required world-religions course is highly unusual, if not unprecedented. That’s what makes it an important case study for considering the potential impact of expanding the study of religion in all public schools.

The researchers surveyed 400 students, once before they took the course and twice afterwards. In addition, they conducted personal interviews with students, teachers, administrators, school board members and religious and community leaders.

The findings are mostly good news for the First Amendment and good news for education. After the course, students were more likely to support religious liberty for all religious groups. Students were more willing to extend political and First Amendment rights to everyone, including their “least-liked” group. On a more personal level, the study shows the course increased the likelihood that a student would defend a fellow student whose religious beliefs were insulted.

Excitement about these results, however, should be tempered by recognition of how much education still needs to take place, even in Modesto. For example, while student support for permitting a “least-liked” group to hold a public rally rose from 25% to 35%, that’s still appallingly low in a society committed to free speech and assembly for all.

Beyond questions about First Amendment rights, the survey tested what students learned about the religions covered in class. Average scores on these questions went from 37% correct before the course to 66% after; these gains persisted several months after the course ended.

One of the more intriguing findings concerns student attitudes about similarities among religions. Before the course, 45% of students agreed with the statement that “all religions share the same basic moral values.” After the course, that number rose to 63%.

But seeing a common morality didn’t lead students to think all religions are the same. On the contrary, students who began the course with a strong commitment to their own religion finished the course still believing in the truth of their tradition as compared to others. This result may allay the fears of some parents, especially religious conservatives, that teaching students about other religions might undermine faith in their own.

The report is careful not to overstate the success of the Modesto course — or the barriers to replicating it elsewhere. Preparing teachers to teach about a variety of religions (especially since teacher-education programs largely ignore religion) isn’t easy. Students and community members generally said teachers presented the material without bias. But teachers were instructed to focus on “the facts,” with little attention to controversial issues or differences among religions. Although this caution is understandable given the emotion surrounding religion in school, it could lead to what the report calls an overly “warm and fuzzy” approach that discourages critical thinking.

Despite challenges and limitations, Modesto’s world-religions requirement breaks new ground — without starting a fight. According to the report, the course enjoys broad support from religious leaders, parents, students and educators. This contradicts the widely held view that any attempt by public schools to tackle religion in the curriculum will end in conflict.

Whether other districts pick up Modesto’s experiment remains to be seen. But thanks to Professors Lester and Roberts, we now have evidence that learning about religions can promote respect for religious liberty and create understanding across differences. In a nation divided by religion, in a world torn by sectarian violence, maybe it’s finally time to take religion seriously in the public school curriculum.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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