Scholars to discuss new book on proper role of religion in public school curricula

Monday, September 14, 1998

ARLINGTON, Va. — A public school curriculum that lacks religious studies weakens a student's education and undermines the Constitution, according to two of the nation's leading religion scholars.

In their just-published book, Charles Haynes, senior scholar at The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, and Warren Nord, a University of North Carolina philosophy of religion professor, set forth the failures of public school curricula and ways to improve them.

The book, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum, will be discussed tomorrow at The Freedom Forum World Center. Nord and Haynes will present their arguments and answer questions from a panel of educators and civil rights groups. The panel will be Webcast on First Amendment Center Radio beginning at 10:55 a.m. Eastern.

Nord and Haynes argue in their book that if religion was once pervasive in the public schools, “it now appears to be irrelevant.” The absence of religion in the public school curriculum has not gone unnoticed by “many religious conservatives,” they write. That short shrift of religion has “fueled our culture wars and has driven many to private schools and to support the voucher movement,” the two authors state in the introduction to the 221-page book.

As American culture has become more secular, so has the public school curriculum, Nord and Haynes contend.

“In the 20th century the curriculum has often excluded religion,” Nord and Haynes write. “In public schools this is unjust; it means that we don't take religious people seriously. All sides need to recognize that we cannot resolve the current battles either by promoting a particular religion or by excluding all religion from the curriculum.”

A secular public school curriculum, however, undermines religious liberty and produces “an illiberal education,” Nord and Haynes say.

“For more than 50 years, ever since it applied the First Amendment to the states, the Supreme Court has held that government, and therefore public schools, must be neutral in matters of religion — neutral among religions, and neutral between religion and nonreligion,” the book says. “It is not proper for public schools to take sides on religiously contested questions. We will argue that if schools are to be truly neutral they must be truly fair — and this means including in the curriculum religious as well as secular ways of making sense of the world when we disagree.

“A good liberal education should expose students to the major ways humanity has developed for making sense of the world — and some of those ways of understanding the world are religious,” Nord and Haynes note. “Indeed, we cannot systematically exclude the religious voices in our cultural conversation without conveying the implication that religion is irrelevant, that religious views have no claim on the truth.”

According to Nord and Haynes, the exclusion of religious views from the curriculum places students “at a deep disadvantage in thinking critically” about society's truths.

“One can't be an educated human being without understanding a good deal about religion,” the scholars say in the second chapter. “Just as there are civic and constitutional reasons for including religion in the curriculum, so there are educational reasons.”

In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the establishment clause of the First Amendment barred school-sponsored religious activities. In other words, the court ruled that establishment clause prohibited public school teachers from trying to indoctrinate students with religious beliefs. Nord and Haynes note that unfortunately the high court's rulings caused some educators to believe that the “curriculum cannot include religion.”

A new understanding regarding religion and rhe public school curriculum has started to emerge, however, the authors say, to challenge the notion that public school curricula must be devoid of religious studies for constitutional reasons. Nord and Haynes say, a consensus has been growing over the last decade that is founded on the “idea that public schools should be neutral in matters of religion.”

For public school officials to remain neutral on religion, the authors argue, they must start being fair to religion.

Among tomorrow's panelists are Perry Glanzer, education policy analyst for Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization based in Colorado, and Carol Shields, president of a liberal civil rights group, People for the American Way.

The book is not the first by either Nord or Haynes about the plight of religion in America's public school curricula. Haynes co-authored the 1993 publication, Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion in Public Schools, and Nord wrote Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma, in 1995.