School guest speakers on religion should know ground rules

Sunday, May 21, 2000

Public educators have debated for decades whether or not to encourage teaching about religion. Not any more.

The current generation of textbooks and state standards — especially in the social studies — reflects a growing consensus that at least some study of religion is necessary for a good education.

Now the challenge is to get it right. This can be done, but avoiding the pitfalls isn't easy.

Consider, for example, the teacher of an elective course in world religions featured on the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” a few weeks ago. A national audience saw this veteran California teacher turn his students over to a Buddhist monk for instruction in basic meditation techniques.

I have no problem with inviting a monk or other qualified religious leaders to speak in a public school. It makes sense for teachers to call on guest speakers for help, especially when trying to present a variety of religions fairly and accurately.

But outside speakers need to know the First Amendment ground rules before they enter the classroom. Rule number one: they may inform students about their religious tradition, but they may not proselytize or indoctrinate.

I would argue that instructing students in meditation or any other religious practice crosses the constitutional line. It's not the role of public schools to involve students in sacred ceremonies.

Nor would it make any difference if the meditation exercise were seen as a “role-play” rather than “real” meditation. A religious practice is a religious practice.

Role-playing, no matter how well-intentioned, risks violating the religious-liberty rights of students. Moreover, pretending to re-create a religious practice trivializes the meaning of a ritual taken seriously by millions of people.

An alternative that is both constitutional and educational would be to use audio-visual resources and primary-source documents to introduce ceremonies and rituals of the world's religions.

On the same “NewsHour” segment, another California teacher was shown teaching about the religious beliefs of the Puritans. Unlike previous textbooks that tended to avoid tackling the religious ideas of groups like the Puritans, the new texts help students understand what Puritans, Quakers and others actually believed.

Although this teacher had no problem addressing religion (and she appeared to be doing a good job), she did have a complaint about her daughter's experience in another school. It seems that a parent invited to talk about the meaning of Christmas to her daughter's class took the opportunity to share a devotional reading of the Christmas story.

Here again is an example of a well-meaning guest speaker who isn't clear about the difference between teaching about religion, which is permissible, and religious indoctrination, which is not.

Parents or religious leaders as guest speakers can be valuable resources, but they must be clear about the academic nature of their assignment. Religious-studies faculty from local colleges and universities might be a better choice, particularly for more complex discussions on the secondary level.

What is the lesson here? Even the best teachers can make mistakes when dealing with a subject as sensitive as religion.

The solution isn't to ignore religion. Textbooks tried that for decades and it didn't work. Not only does avoidance cheat kids of a good education, it also sends a hostile message to religious Americans.

The answer is to meet the challenge with proper teacher preparation and sound classroom resources.

A good first step would be to make sure that every teacher has a copy of “A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools,” a set of guidelines published by the First Amendment Center and endorsed by 22 leading educational and religious organizations.

If the new consensus represented by this guide is any indication, teaching about religion in public schools is here to stay. Now we have to ensure that it's done in ways that are both constitutionally permissible and educationally sound.