It Isn’t Whether–It’s How

Extremists on the Right constantly complain that religion has been banished from public school classrooms. This, of course, is inaccurate: what the Establishment Clause prohibits is proselytizing–imposing religious beliefs or observances on the “captive audience” that is the public school classroom.

The courts have been careful to distinguish between official endorsement or sponsorship of religion, which is unconstitutional, and instruction about religion, which is not only constitutional, but entirely appropriate. (Try teaching history, or art history, without reference to the immense influence of religious beliefs.)

One of the problems caused by low levels of civic and constitutional knowledge is that some schools have become skittish, avoiding even the appropriate study of religion for fear of lawsuits, while at the other end of the spectrum, schools have simply ignored the line between proper and improper instruction.

But some schools have gotten it right. Modesto, California is one of them.

The course’s inclusive curriculum ensures that it meets constitutional standards. It’s obvious from the design of the course and from emerging evidence that it succeeds in providing a thorough and objective education in world religions. For that reason, it’s a useful example of how religion ought to be taught in schools, if it’s going to be taught at all. And it’s sharply distinct from the Religious Right’s various attempts to insert sectarianism in public classrooms.

Modesto’s course and curricular proposals stand in sharp contrast to the Bible class designed by Hobby Lobby’s owners that has been proposed for use in Mustang, Okla., public schools. Steve Green, the corporation’s current president, called the class “the fourth leg of my personal ministry” and stated that it’s intended to complement his planned Bible museum in Washington, D.C. Legal objections from groups like Americans United have put the class on hold for now, but it could still be implemented in Mustang’s high schools.

If the goal is to have kids know about religion, there are perfectly legal ways to do that. The problems arise when your goal is really to impose your particular beliefs on others.


  1. My daughter-in-law has been employed at a local Catholic church and school for ten years. Two of her sons attended the school for two years but she removed them due to bullying which no one in authority attempted to stop. She is in a good position to know what is required of all students. The voucher students are required to STUDY the Catholic religion along with Catholic students as a matter of course; they do not have to participate in prayers. Maybe not requiring prayer participation is HOW the school and the IPS voucher system believes they are following the constitution.

  2. Parents have every opportunity to teach their kids whatever religious concept that they feel is important. The one place that it is prohibited is in public schools who have limited time and resources to teach a great deal that’s growing every day.

    I don’t see the problem that the hobby lobbyists are trying to solve.

  3. Proponents of religion keep hammering on the link between religion and what the founding fathers intended, but they never get it right.

  4. If voucher-recipient parochial schools are using public money to indoctrinate students on Catholicism and to REQUIRE students to take such doctrinaire instruction, objecting parents should contact the ACLU of Indiana to request assistance to stop both.

    Some public schools HAVE provided instruction on world religions and how various religions have impacted history, geography, laws, art, music, literature, current events, etc. Most teachers are not constitutional experts nor theologically trained in multiple religions. Training and texts to guide educators through this specialized and legally intimidating area are in relatively short supply, but investment in such preparation is well worth it. Understanding various religions prepares us with a much better ability to understand and compete in global economies and cultures as well as in our own highly diverse country.

    Some religious zealots fear instruction in anything but their own religion but need not be fearful. And as with foreign languages, understanding other religions provides us a deeper understanding of our own religion and culture. Despite the differences, I’m always amazed how much various religions have in common.

    Schools are not the only providers of such instruction. Community groups, service clubs, and churches can do this too. My church does. We’ve provided classes on global religions and cooperate with Jewish, Muslim, and other Christian denominations on joint and exchange activities. For instance, Jewish and Christian youth groups have participated in both Seder meals and Easter activities. Neighboring Jewish and Christian congregations have jointly hosted Iftar dinners to break the fast of Ramadan for Central Indiana Muslims.

    I often wonder if God created different tribes and languages to see if we would really try to overcome those differences to see ourselves as brothers and sisters in the human family. Some of us are trying.

  5. Some folks seem to think that nothing really goes on in schools so teachers fill the vacuum by stuffing it with evolutionary biology. That means maybe you could fill the rest of it with scripture readings to balance things out. In actuality, good schools are very busy, stressful places and, given the choice, religious folks wouldn’t never want many public school teachers to teach religion in the first place. So who do you want to open the day with prayer? The atheist, the lapsed Catholic, the Protestant nothing who hasn’t darkened the door of a church in 20 years, the Muslim, the Hari Krishna, the wiccan? Take your choice. Some of those folks think schools are still 1880 one-room school houses.

Comments are closed.