What is the difference between teaching about the Bible and religious indoctrination?

Friday, December 13, 2002

If teachers are to understand clearly how to teach about the Bible — and to feel safe doing so — then local school boards should adopt policies on the role of study about religion in the curriculum. The policy should reflect constitutional principles and current law, and should be developed with the full involvement of parents and other community members. Parents need to be assured that the goals of the school in teaching about religion, including teaching about the Bible, are academic and not devotional, and that academic teaching about the Bible is not intended to either undermine or reinforce the beliefs of those who accept the Bible as sacred scripture or of those who do not. Faith formation is the responsibility of parents and religious communities, not the public schools.

In recent years, a consensus has emerged among many religious and educational groups about the appropriate role for religion in the public school curriculum. In 1989, a coalition of 17 religious and educational organizations issued the following statements to distinguish between teaching about religion in public schools and religious indoctrination:

  • The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school may strive for student awareness of religions, but should not press for student acceptance of any religion.
  • The school may sponsor study about religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion.
  • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose, discourage, or encourage any particular view.
  • The school may educate about all religions, but may not promote or denigrate any religion.
  • The school may inform the student about various beliefs, but should not seek to conform him or her to any particular belief. (This consensus statement, as well as extensive guidelines and resources for teaching about religion in public schools, can be found in Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education, by Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas. Finding Common Ground is available at www.ASCD.org or from www.Amazon.com.)

When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion — which is unconstitutional — and teaching about religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair — which is constitutional.