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Teaching About Religion

Students Ayesha Mohammed, left, and Alani McEachnie with U.S. government class teacher Rob Bonifacio, at the Public Safety Academy in Fairfield.
Published: December 4, 2018

Students Ayesha Mohammed, left, and Alani McEachnie with U.S. government class teacher Rob Bonifacio, at the Public Safety Academy in Fairfield.

“How did Christianity help shape the foundation and development of the early United States?” asks David Fulton, a social studies teacher at Green Valley Middle School in Fairfield.

“Americans felt it was their God-given right to have independence,” replies eighth-grader Parisa Samadi, citing a sentence in the Declaration of Independence that the “Creator” grants Americans inalienable rights.

The Fairfield-Suisun Unified Teachers Association (F-SUTA) member is discussing the “Great Awakening,” which was a series of emotional religious revivals across the American colonies in the late 1730s and 1740s. Religion has been a driving force throughout American history, says Fulton. He notes that women demanding equal rights have used the argument that all people are equal in God’s eyes, and that religion continues to influence U.S. history.

For many years his school always put up a Christmas tree, but several years ago staff decided not to, to honor the separation of church and state.

“I don’t have any problem with that,” says Fulton. “We have Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews, and I can see why the district doesn’t want to appear to endorse one religion over the other.”

His students may not have a Christmas party at school, but they enjoy learning about the major religions of the world and are extremely inquisitive, he comments. “Religion has influenced how we behave and what we value, and I couldn’t imagine teaching history without including it.”

Can schools really teach about religion? It’s a common perception that schools are not allowed to teach about religion, says Fulton, but students have been studying religion’s role in the historical, cultural, literary and social development of the U.S. and the world for decades. And in today’s divisive world, increasing understanding about world religions has never been more important.

Teaching students about religion in an objective, balanced and factual manner has been incorporated into California’s History–Social Science (HSS) Content Standards since 1998, and is also part of the new HSS Framework, points out Juliana Liebke, a social studies curriculum specialist for San Diego Unified School District, who says people are constantly surprised by this.

“Teaching about religion is not the same as teaching religion, because we are not proselytizing. We are just teaching facts about belief systems of various religions, to understand how the narrative of world history has unfolded,” says Liebke, San Diego Education Association.

“But you have to walk a fine line. We can’t tell the students what they should believe. But we answer their questions and make it clear to students that they can ask whatever they want, although not all of their questions can necessarily be answered.”

For example, a student can ask whether Christians, Jews and Muslims believe in God and receive an answer. If a student asks Liebke if she believes God exists, she will say, “My personal religion is not for including “the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament” (standard 6.7).

In 2016, the State Board of Education adopted a new HSS Framework to provide guidance on implementing the standards. It added content on Sikhism to the chapter on seventh-grade curriculum, “World History and Geography: Medieval and Early Modern Times.”

Students, says Liebke, are encouraged to read primary sources, which may include excerpts from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and the Quran.

Religion and civil liberties High school students in In Rob Bonifacio’s U.S. government class at the Public Safety Academy in Fairfield are knowledgeable about their constitutional rights — which includes freedom of religion. Sometimes students discuss what it means for a school to ask for a “moment of silence,” or if students should be compelled to say “under God” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

“A good number of students feel that no one should be forced,” says F-SUTA member Bonifacio, who says teachers must be sensitive to the beliefs of all students, including atheists, and not let their own biases show.

His students discuss U.S. Supreme Court cases that cover civil liberties and religious freedom, and appreciate that as Americans, they have the right to worship — or not worship — as they please.

As his school becomes more diverse, the halls are no longer decked. Out of deference to Native Americans and indigenous people, Thanksgiving is now called “Turkey Day” in his classroom. He comments that younger students at his school are no longer taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered America,” but instead that he enslaved Indians to convert them to Christianity.

“We’re very secular in that regard and try to make sure we don’t put any religion on a pedestal as we become more inclusive,” says Bonifacio. “That way we are not just a school, but a family.”

Parents may need explanations. Fulton and Liebke say that some parents have expressed concern upon learning seventh-graders study about Islam.

When educators explain it is part of a continuum of studies about many religions’ influence on history, culture, and the arts — and necessary to enhance students’ understanding of the world — most parents seem to understand. (Islam is included in HSS standard 7.2.)

“It opens up discussions about our differences and how to respect those differences,” Fulton says. “I have Muslim students who feel that Islam has been wrongly associated with terrorism. Presenting facts avoids having people in one religion being painted with a broad brush.”

Liebke explains to parents: “It is necessary for children to understand our world and the people in it before they grow up and cast their votes and make decisions about the world.”

Ayisha Benham sends a letter to parents of her 12th-grade American government class and her ninth-grade cultural geography elective at Sylvester Greenwood Academy School in Richmond at the beginning of the year. She believes the letter, which explains how and what she will be teaching about religions, helps prevent misconceptions.

Providing a global perspective Benham, a member of United Teachers of Richmond, takes pride in not presenting information in her class from a Western point of view when it comes to how religion, race, and culture have influenced politics and culture. But she keeps a small Christmas tree on her desk every year to maintain holiday cheer.

Recently, she asked a Muslim student (privately, without pressure) if he would explain why Muslim women wear a hijab to cover their hair. He agreed and explained to classmates that in his culture, wearing a hijab was a source of pride for many women, including his mother. Benham says she and her students learned a great deal, and many changed their perspective.

She recently went to a training called “Faith to Face,” a program that connects students in the classroom of one country with students in another to discuss how their cultural beliefs impact their lives

During the training, students from America discussed with students from a Middle Eastern country how they show appreciation and give thanks. Americans described Thanksgiving and stuffing themselves, while the Middle Eastern students spoke of Ramadan and fasting.

“It was interesting to see two cultures giving thanks in very different ways,” she laughs. “And it was a valuable opportunity for interesting discussions in the classroom.”

Separation of Church and State

Two years ago, a teacher in the Central Valley was accused of handing out “Bible Cookies” to students. The story went viral, and the school community was up in arms.

Eventually, the cookie story crumbled. The cookies were not Bible-shaped — nor did they contain Bible verses. They were store-bought cookies the teacher’s wife donated to the school-authorized Christian Club, which the teacher, a California Teachers Association member, advised. He was later vindicated.

Yes, religion in public schools is a sensitive and hotly debated issue.

The First Amendment reads in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Today that clause is associated with the separation of church and state. The challenge for schools has been to balance that separation with religious freedom, which can be a fine line.

The U.S. Supreme Court protects students’ individual rights to pray, wear religious symbols, and express their religious beliefs at school, yet prohibits such practices if they are perceived as disruptive, discriminatory, or coercive to peers who don’t share the same beliefs. Prayer at public school graduation ceremonies and sporting events has been eliminated for creating a coercive environment.

The Pledge of Allegiance

In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “the First Amendment prohibits public schools from forcing students to … say the Pledge of Allegiance.”

The words “under God” were added to the pledge by Congress in 1954. Several unsuccessful challenges to reciting “under God” have been made. Most schools in California encourage students to recite the pledge every morning but do not require it.

In 1963, the Supreme Court outlawed mandatory Bible study courses in schools, but ruled that schools may teach objectively about religion — as  opposed to teaching religious indoctrination — in history classes and “Bible as literature” classes. Under the federal Equal Access Act of 1984, public schools that allow extracurricular clubs must also allow extracurricular religious clubs, such as the one with the cookie controversy.

In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must allow outside religious groups to use their facilities during nonschool hours if they provide the same use to other organizations. President George W. Bush’s controversial faith-based executive order allowed religious groups to apply for federal grant money for social or educational services in after-school programs. President Obama left the initiative in place, but made changes to prohibit discriminatory hiring practices in these organizations.

Science-based Curriculum, with a Caveat

Early in this decade, schools in California and elsewhere sought to teach a doctrine called “intelligent design” that is a form of creationism. A series of lawsuits challenged the right of schools to do so, and today scientifically verified curriculum is the focus of the Next Generation Science Standards.

Despite this focus, educators should always be respectful of students’ rights and beliefs. In 2009, a teacher in Orange County was found to have violated the First Amendment when he spoke negatively about creationism to a student in his classroom who held strong religious beliefs.

In June 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that a Missouri church preschool was entitled to a grant from a state program to improve its playground. The ruling found that denying funds to religious groups to be used for secular purposes such as a playground violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

Education experts, including analyst and author Diane Ravitch, have criticized the decision to force the public to pay for religious schools, saying it violates the Constitution and widens the opening to vouchers, which funnel public money to private schools, including private religious schools. This is something U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has set as a goal.

Many schools today steer clear of religious holiday references, citing the “winter” break and avoiding references to religious celebrations, instead focusing on multiculturalism to be more inclusive of diverse populations.

It should be noted that faith-based organizations can be great allies to public schools, offering supplies, tutoring, and mentorships for students. Some California Teachers Association chapters, such as Associated Pomona Teachers, engage in community outreach with faith-based organizations on a regular basis to promote socially progressive issues, including equity and providing adequate funding for public education.


Guidelines for Teaching About Religion

• The approach is academic, not devotional.
• Educators strive for student awareness of religion, but do not press for student acceptance of any religion.
• The class educates about religions, but does not promote or denigrate any religion.
• The school may inform the student about religious beliefs, but does not seek to
conform a student to any particular belief.
• Students should not be put on the spot to explain their religious or cultural
traditions, or asked to be a spokesperson for his or her religion.

Source: National Council for the Social Studies

Article posted courtesy of California Educator magazine.

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