ed083102: How to Teach Religion in Public Schools


ed083102: How to Teach Religion in Public Schools

Aug 31st, 2002 9 min read

Former Senior Education Policy Analyst

Krista is a former Senior Policy Analyst in the Education department.

Earlier this year, a kindergartner named Kayla was told she couldn't pray with her friends during lunch. Her family filed suit against her New York school district, and a federal judge ordered the school to allow the girl to pray while the trial proceeds.

This situation probably never would have arisen if school officials had been properly cognizant of a string of Supreme Court decisions in recent decades that have clarified students' rights and responsibilities under the law regarding religious exercise and free speech. Ignorance of these decisions has led to school policies, as in Kayla's case, that chill legal religious practice and that cold-shoulder the legitimate and legal teaching about religion in such subjects as social studies, literature, history, and geography.

According to the Constitution, the American people are guaranteed the right to practice religion free from government intervention. But interpreting the First Amendment clause "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" has not been easy, particularly pertaining to public schools. Nonetheless, the High Court has said, generally speaking, that voluntary student expression and the study of religion are protected but proselytizing and school-sanctioned or teacher-led prayers are not.

The justices have recognized students' First Amendment rights to religious expression and to receive instruction about religion and its role in history, philosophy, and the arts. Congress has voted to enforce--and the Court has affirmed--the right of student religious groups to receive the same access and treatment as other groups. These distinctions are well articulated in a 1995 statement of principles by the National Education Association (NEA), the country's largest teachers union, the Christian Coalition, and 22 other educational associations and religious groups.

"Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion," the document says. "They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education."

While student religious expression and academic instruction about religion are constitutional, school policies vary in the degree to which they are allowed in practice. Some schools provide an open, balanced environment in which students can learn about religions and express their religious beliefs. Other school policies have not been consistent with the law.

Thus, it is essential for educators, administrators, parents, and students to understand their rights and responsibilities under the law and to work together to create a school environment that is both consistent with the Constitution and educationally beneficial for all children.

Teaching About Religion

Religion has played a significant part in history and the arts and continues to do so in the world today. Thus, a wide spectrum of experts contends that religion belongs in a well-rounded curriculum. They say it is essential to understanding the various academic disciplines and developing cross-cultural sensitivity. For example, the late Justice William Brennan, in a concurring opinion in Abington v. Schempp, stated that "it would be impossible to teach meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences or the humanities without some mention of religion."

Many educator groups concur. NEA Resolution E-7 says, "The National Education Association believes that educational materials should accurately portray the influence of religion in our nation and throughout the world." The National Council for the Social Studies Curriculum Standards declares: "Knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person but is absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of diversity. Knowledge of religious differences and the role of religion in the contemporary world can help promote understanding and alleviate prejudice."

The Modesto, California, public school district offers a strong example of how schools can teach about religion. When the district launched a ninth-grade comparative religions class, it ensured that the teachers were well prepared. They worked to give teachers a solid understanding of First Amendment issues and content. Teachers attended workshops that included notable scholars. The district understood the importance of the topic and ensured that it would be constitutional and enriching for students. Many states have established standards recommending the teaching of religion in social studies, the arts, and literature. California, for example, requires teaching about religions in its History-Social Science Framework. Additionally, the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association and the First Amendment Center sponsor a statewide program called the California 3Rs Project, which conducts seminars, forums, and workshops on teaching about religions and student religious liberties. The project supports constitutional and educationally beneficial practices and promotes the "three Rs": rights, responsibilities, and respect in California's diverse school environments. Several other states have initiated 3Rs projects as well.

Religion Teaching's Constitutionality

In California, teachers may teach about the role of religion in history, its artistic influence, significant events, basic tenets, and important figures. The same court case that denied state-sponsored school prayer affirmed instruction about religion. As outlined in Associate Justice Tom Clark's opinion in Abington v. Schempp: "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."

Permissible instruction includes such subjects as the history of religion, the role of religion in U.S. or world history, comparative religion, sacred texts, including the Bible as literature, and the study of sacred music

Expressions of faith have been a common part of our national heritage whereas state-sponsored advocacy of a particular religion has been ruled unconstitutional.  and art. The instructional approach must be academic rather than devotional. It should neither denigrate nor promote beliefs or practices. The goal should be to teach knowledge and understanding about religions without favoring any particular faith. Instruction can include a study of central beliefs, symbols, prominent figures, and events. Students should be able to discuss their beliefs in an atmosphere free of denigration. If a student asks a teacher about his or her religious beliefs, it is permissible to give a brief answer; however, such a moment should not be used to proselytize for or against religion.

Teachers may expose students to primary sources. When guest speakers are invited to speak in the classroom, the content of their speeches should be academic rather than promotional. Educators should use care in choosing learning activities. The California 3Rs Project cautions educators not to use methods, such as role-playing, that could risk "blurring the legal distinction between constitutional teaching about religion and school-sponsored practice of religion, which is prohibited by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."

In January, Excelsior School in the Byron Union School District near Oakland, California, drew criticism for its three-week course on Islam. Seventh-graders adopted Muslim names, read verses from the Qur'an, learned to write Islamic proverbs in Arabic, and organized a pretend hajj, or journey to Mecca. The course handout read, "From the beginning, you and your classmates will become Muslims." In response, the California 3Rs project cautioned educators that "role-playing religious practices runs the risk of trivializing and caricaturing the religion that is being studied. It's more respectful and educationally sound to view a video of real Muslims practicing their faith than having a group of seventh-graders pretend to be Muslims. ... Role-playing runs the risk of putting students in the position of participating in activities that may violate their (or their parents') consciences. Such an issue doesn't arise when teachers teach about religion by assigning research, viewing videos, and through class instruction rather than organizing activities that may be easily perceived, rightly or wrongly, as promoting students' participation in a religious practice."

Although the law does not permit the celebration of religious holidays in school, it does permit teaching about religious holidays. Instruction may include the use of religious symbols, sacred music, literature, art, and drama. Such activities must have academic or aesthetic value and be used to promote knowledge and understanding rather than religious conviction. It is appropriate, for example, to hold a concert that includes a variety of secular and sacred music from diverse traditions. Student-created artwork with religious symbols is permissible, but teachers should not encourage or discourage the content of the artwork.

Off-Campus Religious Classes

Religious instruction may occur during school hours off campus. Twenty-nine states currently have "released-time" programs that allow students to attend weekly classes on religion. Designed by the local community, programs may include the study and memorization of sacred texts, or discussion of topics like character, peer pressure, or substance abuse. Typically, programs provide an hour a week of instruction for students in grades K-6. Some states have daily high school--level programs.

The Supreme Court's 1952 Zorach v. Clauson decision affirmed the constitutionality of released-time religious education. Programs must be voluntary and off-site, and students must have parental permission. Sponsors provide transportation and assume liability for participating students.

Student Religious Expression

Religious speech is protected under the Constitution. Students may express religious beliefs in the classroom and during noninstructional hours, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of other students or disrupt school proceedings. Expression includes speech, artwork, written assignments, and even clothing. Students are permitted to pray individually and in groups. They may read sacred texts and discuss religion with other willing students. Students are allowed to wear clothing with religious messages if apparel with secular messages or symbols meets the dress code. They may distribute religious literature under the same terms that govern the distribution of nonschool-related literature.

In general, religious student groups have the same liberties as secular student groups. 

The fourth R: When public school students study about religion, they pursue "an important part of a complete education," according to a joint statement by the National Education Association and the Christian Coalition. The Equal Access Act of 1984 protects student-led religious groups in public secondary schools that receive federal funds and allow nonacademic groups to meet on school grounds. Under the law, religious student groups must be accorded the same access, resources, or recognition as other student organizations. If a school-spirit club or a chess team meets after school in a classroom, the school must give faith-based clubs the same right to meet. The only difference is that religious groups must be initiated and led solely by students. Teachers may monitor them but may not participate. Teachers may participate in religious activities, such as prayer, alone or with other teachers outside of the presence of students. Last year, the Supreme Court extended the right of access to private community organizations in Good News Club v. Milford Central School. If other community groups such as the Girl Scouts or 4-H Clubs are permitted on campus, religious activity groups must also be allowed to meet. The decision says that speech with an explicit religious message is as constitutionally protected as other speech.

Religious expression is not only constitutional; according to many experts, it is also beneficial. Creating a space for religious expression, they say, can improve the school environment. They say that such policies recognize the value of religious expression, show respect for students' deeply held beliefs, and build trust between parents and schools.

Last November, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy issued a statement affirming students' rights to religious expression of all faiths and urging schools to show sensitivity to requests for religious accommodation. He stated, "Tolerance for religious devotion is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. I would ask that during these difficult times all staff continue to be vigilant in both respecting religious beliefs and protecting fundamental constitutional principles." Levy's respect for students' religious beliefs and expression provided an example for other educators following the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Schools need not be and, legally speaking, should not be "religion-free" zones. The Supreme Court has affirmed students' rights to religious expression and the appropriateness of instruction about religion. An understanding of the role of religion in history, art, and current events is necessary for a well-rounded education. Religious expression is protected for students of every faith. They are free to pray and otherwise practice their religion so long as it is not disruptive. Released time provides students with the opportunity for religious instruction off campus. Religious groups by law must be accorded the same treatment as secular groups on campus.

Knowing the law is the first step toward building equitable and constitutional school policies. Resources are available to help educators, parents, students, and communities. The Department of Education, the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, the Family Research Council, and the NEA, for example, have information on their Web sites.

Opening of dialogue between schools, parents, and community groups can help promote understanding and support for these school policies and programs. In a 1999 letter to educators, then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley advised that "in developing such a policy, school officials can engage parents, teachers, the various faith communities, and the broader community in a positive dialogue to define a common ground that gives all parties the assurance that when questions do arise regarding religious expression the community is well prepared to apply these guidelines to specific cases."

Supported by the law and the community, schools can create numerous opportunities for learning and expression in public schools. Through these opportunities, students will gain a more well- rounded education and a greater appreciation for the diverse religious heritage of other students. 

Krista Kafer is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

Originally appeared in World and I magazine