Understanding and weighing perspectives—from different people, cultures, and schools of thought—are important global competence skills that all student should develop. I’m happy to have Mark Fowler and Marisa Fasciano guest blog today to help us understand why and how to teach about religion in schools.
For a variety of reasons, many educators are understandably reluctant to raise the topic of religion in the classroom. They may worry about offending a student, misrepresenting a tradition, or favoring one belief system over another. If you’re unsure of the legal guidelines pertaining to religion in public schools, you might take the separation of church and state to its literal extreme and steer clear of the topic altogether.
Addressing and overcoming this reluctance is essential to the creation of respectful learning environments that adequately prepare students for an increasingly diverse and connected world. Not only is it perfectly legal to teach about religion in unbiased and academically sound ways, but educators have a responsibility to do so. Here are four reasons why:
1. Religiously motivated hate crimes are on the rise.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Hate Crime Victimization report, the percentage of hate crimes that were motivated by religious bias was nearly three times higher in 2012 (28%) than in 2004 (10%). Many violent hate crime perpetrators are school-age: in 2012, nearly one in five were under the age of 18. By encouraging students to understand and respect people of different religious beliefs, educators are combatting these disturbing statistics and contributing to a more peaceful world.
2. Our student body is more diverse.
In 1970, a little fewer than 5 percent of the U.S. population was foreign born. The majority of them were Christian Europeans whose cultural and religious practices blended into the mainstream. By 2010, our foreign-born population has nearly tripled, and the proportion from Latin America (54%) and Asia (28%) greatly surpassed the proportion from Europe (13%).
To ensure that students of less familiar cultures and religious traditions feel included and safe in their learning communities, teachers need to provide opportunities for all students to share unique aspects of their identities. As their classmates become more educated about these differences, the likelihood of exclusivity and bullying diminishes.
3. Religious literacy is key to a well-rounded education.
If students are to function as globally competent citizens, they need to understand religion’s profound impact on history, politics, society, and culture. They should know basic religious facts and principles and recognize the diversity that exists within each belief system across time and place. Familiarity with central religious texts is also important, and it’s legal to study these texts in public schools, as long as the purpose is educational and not personal or devotional. For example, the Bible can be studied as a piece of literature that has influenced many classic works.
4. Students have a First Amendment right to religious expression in school.
The U.S. Constitution contains two clauses, known as the religion clauses, which inform the relationship between religion and public schools.
The Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,...”
The Free Exercise Clause: "...or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
As government employees, public school teachers and administrators are subject to the Establishment Clause and thus required to be neutral about religion while carrying out their duties. The Establishment Clause prevents public school staff from
- mandating or organizing prayer;
- praying in the presence of students;
- indoctrinating students in a particular religious belief;
- religiously observing holidays;
- erecting religious symbols on school property;
- distributing religious literature for persuasive purposes; or
- displaying a preference for religion over non-religion, or vice versa.
The Free Exercise Clause, on the other hand, affirms that certain religious activity in public schools is protected. As long as students do not coerce or otherwise infringe on the rights and learning of their schoolmates, they can
- engage in private prayer during the school day;
- express their religious beliefs in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments that meet educational goals; and
- obtain excusals from specific classroom discussions or activities for religious reasons.
Even though these guidelines may seem clear in the abstract, applying them to real-life situations often leaves room for interpretation and comes down to a judgment call. Educators can find it challenging to balance the requirements of the Establishment Clause, and the desire to protect students’ from unwelcome religious persuasion, with the right to free expression. To better prepare for this challenge, educators need to create conditions in their schools that allow for regular and sensitive communication about religious differences. That way, if religious tensions arise, they can be resolved more skillfully and effectively.
Dr. James Banks, a renowned expert in social studies and multicultural education, states “The world’s greatest problems do not result from people being unable to read and write. They result from people in the world-from different cultures, races, religions, and nations-being unable to get along and to work together to solve the world’s intractable problems.” By replacing anxiety about religion with a thoughtful strategy for promoting students’ religious literacy, educators are taking a step towards a better world.
The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding is conducting a free webinar for educators on legal issues related to teaching about religion on Wednesday, April 9 from 3:30-4:30 PM (EST) and Thursday, April 10 from 6:30-7:30 PM (EST). The webinar will give a deeper understanding of the nuances of the law and a chance to develop your own judgment through realistic case studies. Learn more and register.
Rev. Mark Fowler is the Managing Director of Programs and Marisa Fasciano, LMSW is Education Program Associate of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. Follow Tanenbaum and Asia Society on Twitter.
Tanenbaum is a secular, non-sectarian nonprofit that promotes mutual respect with practical programs that bridge religious difference and combat prejudice in schools, workplaces, health care settings and areas of armed conflict.
The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.