Schools across America are talking about religion. But the
question many educators are asking is not about prayer in the
classroom, but about religion as curriculum.
Last December, the Department of Education issued new
guidelines for the teaching of religion to every public school
in the country.
The guidelines represented a change in most schools'
policies. Most districts removed religion from classroom
discussions after a 1962 Supreme Court decision forbidding
government-led prayer in public schools.
With the new guidelines, teachers are now encouraged to
discuss religion, to actively teach civic values and morals, and
to allow students to express their beliefs in school
But questions remain about how the guidelines should be
interpreted. Some schools have brought in guest speakers to
discuss religious ceremonies, a practice some educators
denounce. And some parents object to teachers using religious
texts like the Bible to talk about holidays.
Defenders like Charles Haynes, a religious scholar who helped
write the guidelines, say the goal is to define for teachers how
students can be educated about religious ethics and values.
"The [Supreme] [C]ourt was trying to say that there is a
place for religion in the public schools, but it must be an
academic place in the curiculum," Haynes told The
NewsHour's Betty Ann Bowser. "Just as we learn about all
kind of things in history, you also learn about religion."
How do you think religion should be taught in schools? How
can educators be sure that religion is being taught objectively?
Should teachers discuss religious values? How should students
learn about religious traditions and ceremonies?
The Freedom Forum's Charles Haynes and comparative religion
teacher Jim Maechling respond to your questions.
Preston of San Francisco, CA asks:
To what degree does this change in curriculum have to do with
the changing definition of religion? Is there a shift happening
in the connotation of the word, from congressional faith to
religion as a domain of history? If so, is that change affecting
the way religion is taught?
Thank you for your interesting question. The change in the
curriculum is due to a variety of trends in our society. In the
mid-1980s, textbook trials in Tennessee and Alabama alerted many
educators to the problems associated with ignoring religion in
reading and history texts used in public schools. Three textbook
studies that appeared during that period confirmed that public
school textbooks were largely silent about religion.
Many groups from all sides of the debate came together to
draft consensus guidelines on how public schools may teach about
religion (an effort I co-chaired with attorney Oliver Thomas).
Now, more than a decade later, textbooks are beginning to do a
better job of including religion, state standards include more
references to teaching about religion, and programs like our
California 3Rs Project (Rights, Responsibilities, and Respect)
are training teachers to teach about religion in ways that are
constitutionally and educationally sound.
The emergence of the field of religious studies over the past
four decades has indeed re-defined what we mean by
"religion" (or perhaps what we mean by the "study
of religion"). And this redefinition has indeed changed how
religion is taught. The study of religion was at one time
confined largely to "Bible departments" in private
colleges and universities. Today, religious studies is a
well-developed academic field. Most institutions of higher
learning - including state colleges and universities - have
religious studies programs.
The American Academy of Religion (university professors of
religious studies) has just appointed a new task force to
explore how higher education can work with public schools to
encourage appropriate academic study of religion. The challenge
is to make religious studies in the k-12 curriculum
age-appropriate and authentic. The university model of the
"scientific study of religion" is not the best fit for
the elementary and secondary grades. We are working to develop
good resources and training models that help teachers in public
schools teach about religion with accuracy, sensitivity,
fairness, and empathy.
One more note: The explosion of religious pluralism in the
United States has also contributed to our
"redefinition" of religion and made study of religion
more important for citizenship in a diverse society.
For more information on how to address these issues in public
schools, consult our web site. www.freedomforum.org
I'm not really sure if there is a shift happening in the
connotation of the word "religion". There has been an
on-going debate over the years in my class over an accurate
definition of religion itself. Webster's defines it as
"belief in and worship of God or gods."
However, do the major Chinese belief systems such as Taoism,
Confucianism, and Buddhism qualify because they do not deal with
the existence of God? Or should they be classified as
philosophies because they present a way of life? As a history
teacher, I've always regarded religion as a major influence.
Cultural traditions, holy wars, inquisitions, revolutions,
freedom movements, terrorism, political leaders, artistic
masterpieces - all come out of religious conviction.
Hachmann of San Diego CA asks:
As an atheist, I am wondering if a non-believer was ever
invited to present his/her views to the students. If not, is
there a reason?
You raise a very important issue. A balanced curriculum
should include a variety of perspectives. The First Amendment
does not require "equal time" (which would be
impossible given the great variety of religious and
non-religious views). But it does require that decisions about
which religion will be taught and how much will be taught be
based on academic considerations (e.g., what do we need to teach
in order to teach a good U. S. history course?).
In a course that covers some of the major worldviews, it
would be important to include information about freethinkers,
humanists, and atheists. The course featured in the NewsHour
segment is a World Religions course. I assume that the teacher
covers the five or six major world traditions. I'm not sure if
atheism is covered. If I were teaching the course, I would
include a unit on non-believers - a growing segment of our
I've actually never had an atheist guest speak to the
comparative religions class nor offer to do so. This may be
because of the general nature of the belief itself. However,
atheist and agnostic students express their beliefs openly to
the class on a daily basis. Also, some have made formal
presentations of their views related to research. One student
made a compelling case after reading Why I Am Not A Christian
by Bertrand Russell.
Schubert of Fort Collins, CO asks:
It is hard for me to see how schools can teach about religion
using reason and human knowledge when many religions claim to be
beyond reason and human knowledge. Are astrology and Scientology
religions? Should they be taught in schools?
Religious traditions do indeed make claims that are
metaphysical. But reason and "knowing" are central to
all religious traditions, even thought their ultimate claims may
be beyond reason. (The problem of "knowledge" is, of
course, one of the major discussions in philosophy and theology.
Suffice to say, there are many ways of "knowing" - not
all of them based on empirical evidence.)
In any case, reason is used to study any subject, including
religion. We can, for example, learn about what Roman Catholics
believe about the Holy Trinity even though this concept of God
can not be "proved" or "disproved" by human
reason. Religious studies informs students about what people
believe and practice in the various traditions. Such teaching
involves the same academic guidelines as teaching about
politics, social issues, history or any other complex topic.
What religions are taught depends on the academic
requirements of the curriculum. A good U.S. history course for
example, must include a good bit of information about many of
the Christian and Jewish groups that played a major role in our
early history. Other religions may be discussed when they appear
in the historical narrative. A World History course will look at
the various traditions important in the civilizations under
study. It is doubtful that astrology and Scientology will come
up in such courses, given the need to cover the major events and
ideas of history.
The First Amendment doesn't require "equal time" to
all religions in the curriculum. But it does require that there
be good academic reasons for deciding which religions will be
taught. I could imagine, however, a current events discussion in
high school (or a discussion of court cases in civics)
necessitating some discussion of what astrology is all about or
what Scientolgists believe. For example, a discussion of the
current controversy over Scientology in Germany might require
that students understand something about what Scientology is all
Keep in mind, of course, that public schools do not teach any
religion. They may, however, teach about religion where
appropriate as part of a complete education.
Coincidentally, you made the exact point expressed by a
student in philosophy class just yesterday! We were discussing
Soren Kierkegaard's concept of the "Leap of Faith". I
agree with him that there are spiritual regions that go well
beyond the limits of reason and human knowledge. These areas are
so subjective and personal that they transcend logic and
vocabulary, into the realm of the mystical. But in a class that
is teaching about religion, we can acknowledge and respect that
these places do exist within the individual human mind and
Astrology is an ancient belief system that has been
re-elevated almost to the religious level by many today -
especially New Age people. I tell my ancient history students
that no king or emperor in those times would ever go to war or
make a treaty without consulting his astrologers. In fact, I
thought Nancy Reagan took a bad rap for using astrology during
the 1980s when she scheduled President Reagan's Cold War summit
meetings with Soviet Premier Gorbachev. It worked, didn't it? As
for Scientology, I have no personal experience. I know that
quite a few big name celebrities are members. Some people say
they are a cult. Then we get into "What is a cult?"
One person's true faith is another person's cult. Often in
history, cults have turned out to be the "embryos" of
Frey of Anchorage, AK asks:
I feel that voluntary exposure to experimental methods like
prayer, ritual, yoga and meditation are an essential part of the
quest for awareness. Do you think these methods should be used
in the classroom? Why or why not?
No. It is unconstitutional for public school teachers to lead
students in prayer, yoga, meditation or any other religious
practice. Education, not spiritual awareness, is the mission of
the public school. Faith formation (including spiritual
awareness) is the responsibility of the family and faith
communities, not the public school.
Students, of course, may pray or meditate in public schools
alone or in groups as long as such activities don't interfere
with the rights of others or disrupt the school. But teachers
may not either inculcate or denigrate religion or religious
Some teachers decide to "role play" meditation or
introduce yoga to students as a way of "teaching
about" various religions or exposing students to these
practices. In my view, recreating religious practices or
ceremonies through role-playing or any other method should not
take place in a public school classroom. Such activities, no
matter how carefully planned or well-intentioned, risk
undermining the integrity of the faith involved. Moreover,
role-playing religious practices may also violate the conscience
of students who are asked to participate.
Some lower courts may allow yoga to be taught in a public
school if it is done in a way that is entirely divorced from any
religious content or message (i.e., purely a physical exercise).
I would still suggest that this not be done. In my view, yoga
cannot be divorced (nor should it be) from its religious roots.
And for many parents, yoga remains a religious practice no
matter how "secularized." The courts have been clearer
about prayer and meditation: Public schools may not promote or
lead students in these activities.
For more information about the constitutional and educational
guidelines for dealing with religion in the classroom, consult
our web site. www.freedomforum.org
Yes, if they are approached properly and the students are not
pressured to accept or participate in any religious ritual or
doctrine. All activities in my comparative religions class are
optional. The course is an elective. I don't think it would have
survived over three decades in a multi-cultural public high
school unless it presented all religions fairly and with deep
The only disappointment I had in watching the NewsHour video
segment on my class related to the meditation with the Buddhist
monk. Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum said this was an
"inappropriate" classroom activity. I have great
respect for Professor Haynes' sense of fairness and feel that he
might have reached a different conclusion if he had observed the
entire lesson in its context.
The monk, Reverend Kusala, was showing my students the same
method he teaches juveniles in prison to reduce stress and sleep
at night. In about three minutes, he rings his bell and tells
them: "Say to yourself…As I breathe in I relax. As I
breathe out I smile." Would you call this activity sacred
or secular? To equate this with something like the mass or
communion is absurd to me. There is no worshiping of the Buddha
or anything like that going on my classroom. All the major world
religions have developed forms of meditation, but they are
presented in my class as a secular activity.
Also, consider that most recent studies indicate addictions
to nicotine, alcohol, and drugs are steadily rising among
teenagers because they are under enormous pressure. Yoga and
meditation have become popular in today's culture as healthy,
non-chemical alternatives. What's wrong with introducing these
ideas to high school students?
Schwanke of Herndon, VA asks:
If civic values and morals and religion have to be taught in
public schools, why not teach about morals in either
history/social studies classes or as a part of a literature
class? Wouldn't that help remove the possibility teachers could
insert their own beliefs into their lessons?
One of the most significant areas of "common
ground" for many Americans is the desire to have strong
character education in the public schools. Three is growing
recognition across the religious and political spectrum that
character education in schools must be an essential component of
the effort to develop civic virtue and moral character in our
But character education in public schools is not teaching
about religion. We need both. In public schools, where teachers
may neither promote nor denigrate religion, the core moral
values (e.g., honesty, respect, caring) widely agreed to in the
community may be taught if done so without religious
indoctrination. At the same time, core values should not be
taught in such a way as to suggest that religious authority is
unnecessary or unimportant. Sound character education programs
affirm the value of religious and philosophical commitments and
avoid any suggestion that morality is simply a matter of
individual choice without reference to absolute truth.
Teaching about religion is the academic study of religion,
where appropriate, in history, literature and other courses.
Teachers must be prepared to do this properly so that they do
not insert their own views. We ask teachers as professionals to
teach about many topics and issues fairly and objectively (e.g.,
politics). Teaching about religion fairly and academically is
challenging. But with good resources and proper training, it can
be done. I have worked with thousands of teachers over the past
decade, helping them to learn how to teach about religion. In my
experience, the vast majority of teachers are willing and able
to get it right. The problems we have in public schools are when
there is no training or there are poor resources.
We don't have a choice. Character education must be central
to the mission of our public schools - for the sake of our youth
and for our nation. The Character Education Partnership in
Washington, D.C. provides excellent resources for helping
schools to develop and sustain strong character education
We also don't have much choice concerning teaching about
religion. How can we teach history, literature, art, or music
properly without including study about religion? The question
isn't "should we teach about religion or not?" The
question is "how should we do it?" Fortunately, there
are now many good resources to help teachers teach about
religion under the guidelines of the First Amendment.
Morals, ethical values, and religion are taught indirectly in
some form across the entire curriculum of most schools.
Literature and social studies are particularly appropriate areas
because human behavior is analyzed in either fictional or
non-fictional terms. In my world history classes next week,
actual survivors of the Holocaust will be sharing their tragic
experiences in the Nazi camps. It is impossible to read or hear
oral history such as this without forming powerful moral
The danger that some teachers will abuse their professional
position by inserting their own beliefs in to lessons is always
there. Sometimes this can be a delicate line that every teacher
must face. For example, should a Government teacher reveal
whether he's a Democrat or a Republican?
The First Amendment Center's recent publication, A
Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools prepares
teachers: "How do I respond if students ask about my
religious beliefs?" It says that there may be different
responses depending on the classroom situation and the maturity
of the students. The main point is that teachers "…may
not turn the question into an opportunity to proselytize for or
against religion." To me, it ultimately comes down to
issues of personal integrity and common sense.