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Group Creates Curriculum and Institute To Promote Teaching Religious Liberty

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WASHINGTON--The Williamsburg Charter Foundation last week announced the creation of a curriculum and an institute designed to promote the teaching of principles of religious liberty in classrooms across the nation.

The announcement of those developments represented the last official act of the foundation, which evolved as part of the nationwide commemoration of the bicentennial of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

In 1988, the group produced a document, the Williamsburg Charter, that "rededicated" the nation to principles of religious liberty. The curriculum unveiled here last week was designed to reflect those ideals.

But educators said the new institute and curriculum could also play a role in the growing national movement to teach more in general about religion and civics in public schools. (See Education Week, June 6, 1988.)

Because of controversy over the subject, information on religions has long been minimized in textbooks used in public schools. In recent years, however, a number of states, including California, Utah, and Carolina, have taken steps to require schools to teach more about religion in their classes.

"What I would hope would be that this would encourage teachers to be comfortable in teaching about religion and, if that comes about, it could be an important first step," said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and chairman of the board of prominent national educators that reviewed the curricula.

"You can't understand history without knowing about the role of religion in the human story," Mr. Boyer continued. "You can't understand art, the colonial experience, or architecture without understanding the role of religion."

The new institute, formally known as the First Liberty Institute, will be located at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Funded through private donations and consulting fees, the center is designed to serve as a training and information resource for educators nationwide teaching about religious liberty.

"If you have a curriculum out there that talks about these issues--and they are somewhat controversial--you need to have some place where you can call and say, 'How can I handle this?' or 'I need teacher training,"' said Charles C. Haynes, the institute's executive director.

Mr. Haynes was among the scholars, educators, and religious groups that helped develop the curriculum, entitled "Living With Our Deepest Differences." With separate editions targeted for students in upper elementary, junior-high, and high schools, the curriculum consists of a one-week course addressing the principles and problems of religious liberty in a pluralistic society.

"We are now a nation of some 3,000 religious groups and a growing number of people with no religious preference at all," Mr. Haynes said. This curriculum, "supported by a strong teacher-education program, will help teachers to teach and students to learn in ways that respect religious distinctiveness while affirming our civic consensus," he said.

The curriculum, one of several available for instruction in religion and religious liberty, is published by Learning Connections Publishers, Inc., of Boulder, Colo., and Boston.

While the program has been praised by some of the 150 teachers who pilot-tested it, one expert on religious liberty who attended the press conference last week expressed some concern about it.

Edd Doerr, executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty, a Maryland-based organization that promotes such principles, said early drafts of the materials contained trivial information and left out central figures in the evolution of religious-liberty concepts. Mr. Doerr noted, however, that he had not seen the finished product.

He said other experts had also expressed some concerns about what they perceived to be anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic tones in early drafts of the materials.

A spokesman for the First Liberty Institute last week said that as much as one-third of the curriculum had been revised to address those criticisms.

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