Teaching About Religion: Do’s and Don’ts

The following are questions and answers regarding teaching about religion in public schools in a manner that upholds the separation of church and state mandated by our constitution. These answers are adapted from the First Amendment Center’s publication: A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public School.

1. What case does the First Amendment Center cite to uphold its position that religion can be taught in public schools?

The First Amendment Center cites the 1960’s school prayer cases (that promoted rulings against state-sponsored school prayer and Bible reading) in which the U.S. Supreme Court indicated that public school education may include teaching about religion. In Abington v. Schempp Associate Justice Tom Clarke wrote for the Court:

[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.

2. Why is it important to include the study of religion in school curriculum?

The Center addresses this question based on the principles found in the publication Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools, issued by a coalition of 17 major religious and educational organizations.

Because religion plays a significant role in history and society, study about religion in essential to understanding both the nation and the world. Omission of facts about religion can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant. Failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices, and concepts of the various religions makes much of history, literature, art and contemporary life unintelligible.

Study about religion is also important if students are to value religious liberty, the first freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Moreover, knowledge of the roles of religion in the past and present promotes cross-cultural understanding essential to democracy and world peace.

3. How should schools teach about religion?

The First Amendment Center provides the following guidelines from the Religion in the Public School Curriculum to address this question:

* 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 religion.
* The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion.
* The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
* The school educates about all religions, but does not promote or denigrate any religion.
* The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seek to make students conform to any particular belief.

4. May schools invite guest speakers to supplement help with the study of religion?

The First Amendment Center recommends that teachers refer to their school district’s policies concerning guest speakers in the classroom. In choosing a guest, the Center suggests inviting someone with the academic background necessary for an objective and scholarly discussion of the historical period and the religion being considered, and encourages utilizing speakers who understand First Amendment guidelines when teaching about religion in public schools.

About the First Amendment Center

The First Amendment Center works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms by clarifying and educating the public on this subject. The Center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of issues relating to freedoms of expression, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and religion, the right to assemble and to petition the government. Through its Religious Freedom Programs, the Center helps schools and communities throughout the nation address issues concerning religion and values in public education.