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Teaching on Religion: Brochure's Advice

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What is meant by "teaching about religion'' in the public schools?

The following statements distinguish between teaching about religion in public schools and religious indoctrination:

  • The schools 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 one 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 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.

How does teaching about religion relate to the teaching of values?

Teaching about religion is not the same as teaching values. The former is objective, academic study; the latter involves the teaching of particular ethical viewpoints or standards of behavior.

There are basic moral values that are recognized by the population at large (e.g., honesty, integrity, justice, compassion). These values can be taught in classes through discussion, by example, and by carrying out school policies. However, teachers may not invoke religious authority.

Public schools may teach about the various religious and nonreligious perspectives concerning the many complex moral issues confronting society, but such perspectives must be presented without adopting, sponsoring, or denigrating one view against another.

Is it constitutional to teach the biblical account of creation in the public schools?

Some states have passed laws requiring that creationist theory based on the biblical account be taught in the science classroom. The courts have found these laws to be unconstitutional on the ground that they promote a particular religious view. The Supreme Court has acknowledged, however, that a variety of scientific theories can be appropriately taught in the science classroom. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the Court stated: "Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.''

Though science instruction may not endorse or promote religious doctrine, the account of creation found in various scriptures may be discussed in a religious-studies class or in any course that considers religious explanations for the origin of life.

The coalition includes:

The American Academy of Religion, American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, Americans United Research Foundation, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Christian Legal Society, National Association of Evangelicals, National Conference of Christians and Jews, National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., National Council for the Social Studies, National Education Association, and the National School Boards Association.

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