Questions and Answers Regarding Teaching About Religion in Public Schools

Source: A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, First Amendment Center

Is it constitutional to teach about religion?

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:

It 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 effectively consistently with the First Amendment.

Why should study about religion be included in the curriculum?

The Center addresses this question based on the principles found in the publication Religion in the Public School Curriculum: Questions and Answers, 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 unintelligent…

How should I 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, it does not promote or denigrate religion.
* The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seek to make students conform to any particular belief.

May I invite guest speakers to help with the study of their religion?

The 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.

SISB rigorously trains and certifies its speakers for the Seattle Islamic Speaker Bureau program  based on the First Amendment Center guidelines for speaking about religion in schools and other public and private institutions. 

To review the complete guidelines and to order a copy of A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools contact the First Amendment Center at 800-830-3733 or send an email to puborder@freedomforum.org and request publication no. 99-F02A.

You can also obtain a copy of Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools, (2007 revision) by Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas, which is a First Amendment guide to religion and public education. The book can be downloaded from the First Amendment Center website.

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.

The Seattle Islamic Speakers Bureau programs base its guiding principles upon the First Amendment Center publication, A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools. This guide is based upon the principles outlined in Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy, a document produced by a group of educational and religious organizations. Principle IV of this document states:

Public Schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.

This principle supports SISB’s mandate to provide academic presentations on Islam and the Muslim world to complement social studies and world history curriculum in schools. To this end, SISB trains, tests and observes volunteer speakers on their knowledge of the content they present and their understanding of their role in the classroom. As part of their education, ING speakers are trained to uphold the ideals and principles of the First Amendment and pledge to:

* Provide an academic view of Islam’s place and impact on world history as one of the major religions studied.
* Honor the trust of the host organization and provide education about religion within the contexts of world history and social sciences.
* Provide accurate and balanced information relating to Islam and Muslims.

SISB follows the example of ING’s adherence to these guidelines which has ensured over 20 years of successful partnerships between ING and public and private academic institutions.