Understanding the role religion plays in history and culture is of special importance in our increasingly diverse society. Expanding religious pluralism in the United States confronts our schools and our nation with unprecedented challenges. America has shifted from the largely Protestant pluralism of the 18th century to a pluralism that now includes people of all faiths and a growing number of people who indicate no religious preference. New populations of Muslims, Buddhists, and many other religious and ethnic groups are entering schools throughout the nation.

If we are to live with our differences, we must attempt through education to replace stereotypes and prejudices with understanding and respect. Students need to recognize that religious and philosophical beliefs and practices are of deep significance to much of our citizenry. Omission of discussion about the religious and philosophical roots of developments in history can give students the false impression that the religious and ethical traditions of humankind are insignificant or unimportant.

 

A civic framework for teaching about religion

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...

The religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution provide the civic framework for teaching about religion in the public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean that public schools may neither promote nor inhibit religious belief or nonbelief. The public school curriculum may not, therefore, include religious indoctrination in any form (including hostility to religions or religion in general). Such teaching would constitute state sponsorship of religion and would violate the freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment.

Religious indoctrination, however, is not the same as teaching about religion. In the 1960s school-prayer cases (that prompted rulings against state-sponsored school prayer and devotional Bible-reading), the Supreme Court indicated that public school education may include teaching about religion. In Abington v. Schempp (1963), the Court stated:

[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.

All public school teachers must have a clear understanding of the crucial difference between the teaching of religion (religious education) and teaching about religion. In 1988, a broad coalition of 17 religious and educational organizations published guidelines that distinguish between teaching about religion and religious indoctrination. The guidelines state, in part:

  • The school's approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school strives for student awareness of religions, but does not press for student acceptance of any one religion.
  • The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion.
  • The school exposes students to a diversity of religious views; it does not impose any particular view.
  • The school educates about all religions; it does not promote or denigrate any religion.
  • The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seek to conform students to any particular belief.