Teaching Religion in Public Schools

A N.J. School Wins The Right To Teach Objectively About Religion

  Rob Boston

Here’s a story that is becoming depressingly familiar: A public school, recognizing that it’s important to teach about religion in an objective manner, includes information about Islam in a history or social studies class. Some parents freak out. They file a lawsuit. The parents lose, but the school has to spend time, money and resources battling a frivolous legal action.

This was the script recently in Chatham, N.J. Two years ago, a parent complained about a 7th-grade class called World Cultures and Geography. The class did include information about Islam, but it discussed other religions as well and didn’t proselytize.

A federal court recently dismissed the lawsuit, noting that the School District of the Chathams was offering objective instruction.

“Here, the World Cultures course includes similar units on, for example, Hinduism and Buddhism, in which students watch videos on those religions to understand their tenets and practices,” U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty wrote. “A reasonable observer would not perceive an endorsement of Islam when the course also presented other religions in a similar manner. … This case falls into the category of those in which schools permissibly asked students to ‘read, discuss, and think’ about a religion.”

Cases like this have surfaced in other parts of the country. None have been successful and for an obvious reason: Even-handedly discussing the role of Islam, or any religion for that matter, in a world history course is not the same as proselytizing. Failing to discuss the role these faiths have played in shaping our world is to leave students ignorant. No one should want that.

There’s an especially sad element to the Chatham case: A local news outlet, TAPinto, reported that Jill Critchley Weber, the school board president, noted that after the parent appeared on the Fox News Channel and provided what the district considered to be inaccurate information about the course, fallout was swift – and ugly.

Weber said the district was flooded with “dozens and dozens of hate mail – violent, vulgar mail to the district, violent threats against our employees, violent threats against our employees’ families, death threats against our employees, physical harm to our buildings, and this went on for a while. One threat was so credible that the federal authorities had to get involved.”

The situation got so bad that Superintendent Michael LaSusa had to receive police protection. For weeks, an officer was stationed outside LaSusa’s office.

“Some of the threats were benign and nonsensical, but many of them were violent and vulgar,” Weber said.

Public schools can’t indoctrinate in religion or sponsor prayer, Bible reading or other religious acts of worship. But they can and should teach about religion as an objective subject. Indeed, it would be impossible to teach history accurately without a discussion of religion.

Islam is the religion of 1.8 billion people. Its rise in the 7th century profoundly impacted world history, just as the rise of Christianity did during the 1st century. An educated person needs to know these things. It’s a shame that some individuals are so consumed by rage, hatred and fear that they lash out at the things sensible people acknowledge as facts.

P.S. Since its founding in 1947, Americans United has been protecting the secular public education system, which serves 90% of our young people, from ill-informed attacks. Please join us in this important work.

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