Social Studies

Islam Lesson Turns Into Legal Battle For Virginia District

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — February 24, 2016 3 min read
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The Washington Post reports this week that a Gulf War veteran is suing the Charles County school system in Virginia. He claims that its high school’s lessons on Islam violated his daughter’s constitutional rights.

The father, a Marine, was banned from the school after he issued what the school district described as verbal threats. He is asking the district to lift its ban and allow him to attend his daughter’s graduation.

The incident is the latest in a series of high-profile incidents involving teaching about Islam in public schools. The school district in Veronia, Va. shut down for a day after a lesson on Arabic calligraphy in December. Parents in Tennessee and Georgia also raised concerns that students are being indoctrinated into Islam in school earlier this school year.

It’s worth asking: Why are so many teachers’ lessons about Islam landing so poorly? Are the lessons educationally sound? What’s a teacher whose curriculum includes world religions or Islam to do?

This week’s issue of Education Week features an article about a program that’s trying to help teachers become more informed about religions and their complexity. It’s in Hartford, Conn., and is led by Diane Moore, the founder of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard University.

But it turns out that most teachers never receive training on how to teach about religions, even though religion is featured in social studies standards and curriculum. No state requires it, and most teacher training programs don’t touch on it.

Experts say some of the backlash against lessons in recent months is likely tied to general Islamophobia and fear in the wake of terrorist attacks—a number of groups with large followings, including Jihad Watch and Stop Islamization of America, have publicized their concerns about these lessons and also assert that Islam is an inherently violent religion.

But some of the controversy may be avoidable: Teachers sometimes do teach about religion in inappropriate ways.

An important distinction, according to the First Amendment Center, which offers resources for teaching about religion in public schools: Teachers should be sure they are teaching facts, not interpretations. They also should steer clear of asking students to memorize and recite religious dogma or act out religious rituals, which can blur the line of teaching religion rather than teaching about the religion.

Most of the lessons involved in the controversies seem to have slightly missed the mark. The calligraphy lesson that triggered a district’s closure in Verona, for instance, involved students writing out the Islamic statement of faith. Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and an advocate of religious freedom, said that while the lessons were almost certainly not intended to indoctrinate students, he would not recommend asking students to write out a statement of faith.

The Post includes some of the text from the lesson that triggered the Charles County lawsuit on its website. It asserts that “Most Muslim’s faith is stronger than the average Christian.” While the teacher was probably not trying to indoctrinate students, that hardly seems like an objective (or grammatical) statement.

How to ensure that teachers’ lessons on Islam are more academically sound? Haynes, the religion scholar, says more teachers need to be exposed to religious studies and trained in teaching about religions. He is planning to organize a series of webinars with the University of Northern Iowa to help give more teachers access to religious studies and resources for teaching about religions effectively.

Journalist Linda Wertheimer also discusses the importance of teacher training in her recent book on religion in schools, Faith Ed.

Education Week‘s Global Learning blog has a great list of resources for teachers who need to teach about Islam and other religions.

Did you learn about religious studies in teacher training? Do you think preparing more teachers to talk about religion would make a difference? Let us know in the comments.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.

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