Teaching religion’s role is not teaching religion

Sunday, March 9, 1997

How can American teachers be educated to teach about religion
with accuracy and depth?
Ben Ebersole, Baltimore, Md.

First, the good news: Our efforts to encourage more study about
religion in the public schools are finally getting results. In
a public school near San Diego, Kim Plummer's sixth-grade class
learns about the role of religious groups in the story of immigration
to America. Hundreds of miles away in Logan, Utah, Eric Holmes
leads his fourth-grade class in a discussion of religious ideas and
events in Utah history. And in the Southeast, Georgia teachers
Lou Ann Storey and Sandy Cook offer workshops for other teachers
on how to include teaching about religion in the curriculum.

Across the nation, these and scores of other outstanding teachers
are doing an excellent job of teaching about religion in ways
that are both constitutional and educationally sound.

Now, the bad news: Most textbooks still fail to give adequate
attention to religion in history, literature, and other subjects.
Many public school administrators remain confused about the constitutionality
of discussing religion in the classroom. And far too many teachers
avoid religion either because they don't have the necessary educational
background or because they are afraid of stirring up trouble.

Despite a recent advisory from the U.S. Department of Education
stating that teaching about religion is legal, persuading public
schools to take religion seriously is not easy. The first step
is to make sure that educators and parents are informed about
what is permissible: Under the First Amendment, teachers may not
indoctrinate students for or against religion. But they may and
should teach about religion wherever appropriate in the curriculum.

Neglecting the role of religion in history is a recipe for poor
education. In American history, for example, how can students
understand the revolutionary period without learning about the
First Great Awakening? Does the experience of African- Americans
in the United States make any sense without a study of the role
of the black churches? Shouldn't students know how most social-reform
movements — from those that established child-labor laws to the
civil-rights movement — have been shaped and led by religious individuals
and communities? The list goes on.

Not only does silence about religion skew history &3151; and literature
and economics, etc. — it is also unfair. In the spirit of the First
Amendment, public schools should make sure that students are exposed
to religious ways of seeing the world. Otherwise, how can schools
claim to be offering a fair and complete education? Omission of
study about religion can give students the false impression that
the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant.

The second step toward persuading schools to take religion seriously
is teacher education. In California, Utah, Texas and other states,
the First Amendment Center is working with educators and community
leaders to develop policies and practices that protect the religious-liberty
rights of all students and help teachers to teach about religion,
where appropriate, in the curriculum. During the past five years,
the California project alone has provided workshops and teaching
materials to thousands of teachers throughout the state. That
project has also linked hundreds of school districts to local
colleges and universities whose religion scholars can provide
ongoing help and support for learning more about religion.

Preparing teachers to teach about religion accurately and comprehensively
may not be easy, but it must be done. If we, as a nation, are
to sustain our bold experiment in religious liberty, then we must
make sure that religion and religious conviction are treated with
fairness and respect in our public schools.