To the Editor:
As a retired educator who has followed the debates about religion’s place in schools for four decades, I see the Modesto, Calif., school system’s mandatory religion course as a significant development (“Calif. District Gains From World-Religions Class,” May 17, 2006). Public schools have been too timid for too long in seeking a constitutional and academic approach to teaching about religion.
But based on your and other articles on the Modesto approach, and despite its reported successes, I fear shortcomings even in this carefully constructed curriculum. I wonder, for example, if students participating in this course leave it fully aware that millions of Americans and people worldwide do not embrace any of these religions, and that many prominent historical figures likewise did not. In other words, does religious tolerance, including respect, extend to nonbelievers and those of faiths that fall outside the recognized “world religions” body? I also suspect that the course slights the downsides of religion, including centuries of religious strife.
My concerns, however, are lessened considerably in knowing that Charles C. Haynes of the First Amendment Center has had a hand in this project. More public school educators should recognize the positive contribution he has made to defining the proper public school approach to dealing with this topic.
I encourage educators struggling with religion issues in their schools to turn to the First Amendment Center as a reliable resource. Public schools have an obligation to see that students are exposed to religious pluralism, including respect for those whose beliefs differ from their own, and that they understand the influence of religion, both positive and negative.
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2006 edition of Education Week as Public Schools’ Obligation Is to Religious Pluralism