‘World religions’ course boosts liking for religious liberty

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

ARLINGTON, Va. — A report released today on a required ninth-grade world religions course in Modesto, Calif., offered since 2000 found that students in the class gained new respect for religious liberty, but did not change their own religious convictions.

“Learning About World Religions in Public Schools” by researchers Emile Lester and Patrick Roberts is the first in-depth study of the effects on students of learning about religions in a public school setting. The findings are presented in the debut edition of a periodic First Amendment Center publication, “First Forum,” which will report on issues and developments involving First Amendment freedoms and principles.

The researchers also noted:

  • Advance community support and adequate teacher preparation are keys to success of a required course in religion.

  • Support for the course from Modesto’s religious communities suggests that serious treatment of religion in the curriculum need not be controversial.

  • Overall respect for First Amendment freedoms including speech and assembly also increased among students.

    “With this study, we finally have empirical data about the educational effects of learning about religion in a public school setting,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and a national expert on religious-liberty issues. “Because the Modesto course goes beyond the usual inclusion of religion in a history or literature course – and because the course is required — the Modesto experiment is an important opportunity to consider the impact of deepening the study of religion in all public schools.”

    Researchers Lester and Roberts, in the executive summary of the report, said their findings “allow for cautious optimism that a required world religious course similar to Modesto’s could be implemented in many, if not most, school districts with careful planning and diligent cultivation of community support” similar to the path followed in that community.

    The report also cautions that while the Modesto findings are useful, there remain significant questions about the impact and effectiveness of such religion courses, including the ability of teachers to be both knowledgeable and unbiased in conducting the classes, and whether a brief course in other communities would replicate the student learning found in Modesto’s nine-week class.

    The full report is available here; a limited number of single printed copies are available on written request to: “Learning About World Religions,” Box R, First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212.

    Lester is assistant professor, Department of Government at the College of William and Mary. Roberts is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

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    Press contacts

    For more information about the First Amendment Center and the report, or for a news interview with Charles Haynes, please contact Euraine Brooks, at 703/284-2809 or ebrooks@freedomforum.org.

    To contact the researchers:
    Lester: 804/519-5864, or exlest@wm.edu
    Roberts: 202/549-4987, or robertsp@stanford.edu

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