Teaching about religion in public schools takes preparation — but we can do it

Sunday, June 9, 2002

The FBI and CIA aren't the only institutions in need of reform in post-Sept. 11 America. Add public schools to the list.

In the aftershock of the terrorist attacks, many educators scrambled to answer questions about Islam — and discovered that they didn't know very much. Moreover, schools woke up to find that diversity in the classroom now includes Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and many others who bring their faith with them through the schoolhouse door.

It shouldn't take a crisis to inspire needed change in education, but it does.

In the weeks following the attacks, school districts that had long ignored religion needed some answers. How do we teach kids about religion? What do we do to accommodate the religious diversity in our schools? And — here's the toughest one — how do we make sure that we teach a definition of “American” that includes all of our citizens?

Mark this down as the year that religion and religious liberty moved way up on the public-school agenda — even for those school officials who have long feared to touch these issues with the proverbial 10-foot pole.

As controversial and challenging as teaching about Muslims in today's climate can be, the fact that Islam is the immediate focus has helped overcome the resistance of educators who had previously dismissed “teaching about religion” as a Trojan horse for promoting Christianity in schools.

Schools now know — if they didn't before — that understanding the role of religion in human affairs is a critical part of educating for citizenship in the 21st century. And schools now realize — if they didn't before – that other students besides evangelical Christians take religion seriously.

What happens now?

The worst-case scenario is that schools will jump on the religion bandwagon with quick fixes: Drop more information into the curriculum about Islam and other religions. Handle requests for accommodation of religious practices without any clear policies or guidelines. Paper over differences and confusion about what it means to be “American” by reinstituting patriotic exercises such as rote recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

If that's all that schools do, it would be better if they did nothing.

Dealing with religion isn't like dealing with other issues in education (not that “quick fixes” are ever a good idea). Addressing religious issues in a public school is different for at least three reasons:

  • No establishment. Public-school educators are subject to the establishment clause of the First Amendment and thus required to be neutral concerning religion while carrying out their duties as teachers and administrators. Educators are supposed to be the fair, neutral, honest brokers for students of all faiths — and for students who have no religious affiliation.
  • Religious freedom. Under the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment, students have religious-liberty rights that must be guarded in all public schools. This means that schools need policies that outline how students may express their faith in public schools without interfering with the rights of others or disrupting the educational process.
  • Ultimate concern. Religion doesn't just matter to people — for millions of students and parents, religious faith is the deepest and most important dimension of life. That's why teaching about religion objectively and fairly requires special preparation and scholarly resources.
  • In short, taking religion seriously in public schools means taking religious liberty seriously. A few California districts learned this the hard way last fall. In the wake of Sept. 11, they pumped up their unit on Islam to include some “role-playing” of Muslim practices. The resulting controversy gave teaching about religion a bad name. Not only did they violate both religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment; but they also demonstrated the folly of encouraging teaching about religion without adequate preparation and good classroom materials.

    By contrast, post-Sept. 11 efforts to teach about Islam went well in many other schools where teachers were properly prepared using the best available First Amendment guidelines and academic works written for young adults (such as the outstanding series, Religion in American Life, published by Oxford University Press). When it comes to teaching about religion, crisis management doesn't work.

    School reform is never easy — and never quick. But the painful lessons of the past nine months are the best opportunity in many years for us to dramatically rethink how we address religion and religious freedom in our public schools.

    We can do this. If we hope to live together across our differences — and if we want to sustain our experiment in religious liberty for all — then we must work with schools to bring about meaningful and lasting reform.