Teaching About Religion In Public Schools: Let’s Do It Right

Public schools can teach about religion, but the approach must be objective and tied to legitimate educational objectives.

The claim that public schools are “religion-free” zones is a Religious Right myth that has no basis in reality.

Public schools can (and do) teach about religion. Teachers discuss its role in world and U.S. history. They talk about biblical allusions found in great works of literature. They lecture on how religion has influenced art and music.

The approach must be objective and tied to legitimate educational objectives. Proselytism or elevating one faith over others has no place in the classroom.

This issue has come up in a few states lately, so it’s worth taking a look at the ground rules once again. In South Dakota, the state House of Representatives has passed a non-binding resolution urging public schools to teach about the Bible. In Arizona, two bills have been introduced that would create entire classes focused on the Bible.

I have concerns about both of these measures. The South Dakota bill is too limiting. If we’re going to teach about religion from an objective standpoint, let’s do it right. Sure, instruction about the Bible should be included, but other faiths have holy books, and those should not be overlooked. A class on the history of the Middle East, for example, wouldn’t be of much use without discussion of Judaism and Islam. (And let’s not forget that some people have no religion and those folks have made contributions too.)

The Arizona approach is also short-sighted. Texas and Georgia have already passed laws allowing the creation of classes on the Bible. Things are not going well. In Texas, teachers weren’t offered any training. They had to fly blind, and as a result, some of the classes aren’t objective.

The Texas Freedom Network asked Prof. Mark Chancey, a biblical scholar at Southern Methodist University, to examine the classes. “Many schools portray their Bible classes as social studies or literature courses,” Chancey said. “Yet, intentionally or not, most are really courses about the religious beliefs of the teacher or minister leading the class or of those who created the course materials.”

In Georgia, students expressed little interest in the classes, and many schools dropped them as budgets got tight. I expect this pattern will be repeated in other states. As I told the Arizona Republic recently, state legislators usually have much more interest in these classes than students do.

We also face a lack of good curriculum materials. A North Carolina group, the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, offers its materials to schools. But this fundamentalist group’s materials are problematic, to put it mildly. A Florida federal court ruled in 1998 that the group’s curriculum is unconstitutional, and in 2008, officials at the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, agreed to stop using the council’s materials to settle a lawsuit.

Rather than create special classes on the Bible, public schools would do better to incorporate study about all religions into classes when it’s appropriate. Schools should keep the approach objective and make it clear to teachers that if they start proselytizing they’ll be out of a job.

The Supreme Court endorsed this approach. In its landmark 1963 school prayer decision Abington Township v. Schempp,  Justice Tom Clark observed, “[I]t 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.”

Unfortunately, some legislators don’t want to heed Clark’s wise words. They seem to believe that Bible classes are a way to sneak that old-time religion in through the schoolhouse back door.

They aren’t. And any public school officials who believe otherwise will quickly learn how wrong they are once the inevitable lawsuits have been filed.

P.S. Want to learn more about this issue? Check out Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights. It’s published by Americans United and is available as a free download here.