Schools can no longer ignore religion, scholars say

Tuesday, September 15, 1998

Charles Haynes...
Charles Haynes

ARLINGTON, Va. — Two religion scholars said today that public schools have to start treating religion as an important part of the curriculum.

Most topics taught in public school have religious underpinnings, and teachers and administrators should acknowledge that reality, said Charles Haynes and Warren Nord in presenting arguments from their new book, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum.

Without learning about religion, they said, students may grow up believing that religious viewpoints are irrelevant in society. Moreover, public school educators and administrators flout the establishment clause of the First Amendment by ignoring religion.

Haynes, senior scholar for the First Amendment Center, and Nord, a University of North Carolina philosophy of religion professor, discussed and answered questions about their book at The Freedom Forum World Center. A panel of educators and political advocates also discussed the book and questioned the authors.

“At the heart of the matter is our contention that public schools do not take religion seriously,” Haynes told an audience of about 60. “The conventional wisdom of educators appears to be that students can learn everything they need to know about whatever they study without learning about religion.”

Nord said, “The conceptual nets our educators provide students don't capture anything religious.” He said educators offer students only secular understandings of society and ignore religious traditions that shape society's fundamental beliefs and values.

“We marginalize religion intellectually and culturally,” Nord said. “Such marginalization produces an illiberal education.”

Haynes said their book moved beyond the “two failed models” for public schools. Those models were the “sacred public school,” where Protestant religious views pervaded the public school curriculum, and the “naked public school,” where it is believed religion must be ignored so as not to violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Haynes noted U.S. Supreme Court decisions ruling that the establishment clause prohibits government “not only from preferring one religion over another but also from preferring religion over nonreligion.” Haynes said public schools violate the establishment clause when they fail to treat religion fairly in the curriculum.

Public schools should be places “where people of all faiths and no faith are treated with fairness and respect,” Haynes said.

“We don't believe just mentioning religion a bit more in social studies classes is fair,” Haynes said. “Teaching secular ways of seeing the world while merely mentioning religious perspectives is not neutral.”

Haynes cited a concurring opinion in a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case to bolster his argument that the First Amendment mandates that religion be treated fairly in public school curricula.

In the concurring opinion in Abington v. Schempp, Justice Arthur Goldberg wrote, “The attitude of government toward religion must be one of neutrality.”

Goldberg continued: “Untutored devotion to the concept of neutrality can lead to invocation or approval of results which partake not simply of that noninterference and noninvolvement with the religious which the Constitution commands, but of a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious. Such results are not only not compelled by the Constitution, but, it seems to me, are prohibited by it.”

Not everyone on the panel or audience agreed with Haynes' understanding of the establishment clause.

Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way, although describing the Nord and Haynes book as “important and useful,” nonetheless said “Haynes was 100% wrong to suggest” that the courts mandate religion in all public school curricula.

Mincberg said decisions on the amount and type of religious studies in a public school curriculum should be dealt with by lawmakers at the local level.

Steven Green, legal director for the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, questioned the scholars' call for more religious study in the public schools.

“As a lawyer, I question the arguments regarding the establishment clause,” Green said from the audience. “The arguments suggest there is a constitutional mandate to teach religion.”

Green also said he had problem with the book's premise that secular public schools are hostile to religion. “I think such a premise actually hurts debate and only heightens our cultural wars.”

Nord, however, said curricula in too many public schools ignored “religious language” and failed to “discuss justice, the sacred or the dignity of human beings.”

Nord said schools should correct that problem by requiring, first, that all courses address religion, and eventually by offering religious courses. Teachers would have to be trained, Nord said, before they could teach such courses.

Panelist Diane Berreth, deputy executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, questioned the feasibility of the scholars' recommendations.

“Our nation's priorities for education have shifted away from long-held purposes of schooling, and toward a view where education is seen as a private good aimed at the economic success of individuals,” Berreth said.

“While parents will always want what is best for their own [children], there seems to be a lessened concern for what is fair and best for everybody's children. This shift makes the authors' hopes less likely to be realized,” Berreth said.