Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism
"The First Amendment is ... a vital living principle,
a call to action, and a demand that each generation
reaffirm its connection to the basic idea that is America --
that we are a free people who protect our freedoms
by respecting the freedom of others who differ from us."
- Richard W. Riley, former U. S. Secretary of Education
We recognize that the religion arena is frequently a contentious one. It
consists of diverse and often contradictory worldviews and is fraught with
constitutional perplexities. With all the challenges, what can we ask of our
public schools? How should they go about educating students about any
given human worldview? There have been endeavors to publish guidelines
that would be helpful to "teaching fairly and legally about religion." This
section provides a sampling.
3Rs on Role-Playing
"Instruction about Religion in Public Schools" - Objectivity, Accuracy,
and Balance In Teaching About Religion, 2002
1 Teaching about religion in public schools is legal when conducted in
accordance with commonly agreed-upon guidelines, and a program of study
about religion can be appropriate to, and of significant worth in, a
youngster’s general education.
2. Teaching about religion should take place only as part of a well-defined
academic curriculum—one that evidences religious neutrality and
encompasses age-appropriate subject matter, with teaching objectives that
are clearly stated and public.
3. Teaching about religion should not take place unless the teacher has
suitable academic background in the subject matter, adequate training to
guide a secular program of study, and sufficient resources to conduct
instruction fully in keeping with the following three guidelines (4-6).
4. Teaching about religion must be accomplished within the framework of
the civil public school, which recognizes that there is no single normative
culture or religion for all students to accept.
5. Teaching about religion should be conducted in a spirit of fairness and
inclusiveness, acknowledging the actuality and nature of religious and
nonreligious diversity among the body politic, and respectful of all students’
freedom to hold a religious worldview or a nonreligious worldview.
6. Teaching about religion in public education needs to serve the interests of
a pluralistic society, preparing students to meet with aplomb the full
spectrum of religious and nonreligious diversity within the public realm.
"Study About Religions in the Social Studies Curriculum" - National
Council for Social Studies, 1998
This 1998 position statement of the National Council for the Social Studies
focuses exclusively upon the religious worldview, without recognition that
many of the events of history arose from distinctly nonreligious outlooks.
Thus, the position is a truncated view of a broader picture, which would
encompass both the religious and nonreligious worldviews, as well as
historic interactions between them.
"Presidential Guidelines" - U.S. Dept. of Education, 1998
"Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach
about religion, including the Bible or other scripture: the history of religion,
comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature, and the
role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries all
are permissible public school subjects. Similarly, it is permissible to
consider religious influences on art, music, literature, and social studies.
Although public schools may teach about religious holidays, including
their religious aspects, and may celebrate the secular aspects of holidays,
schools may not observe holidays as religious events or promote such
observance by students." - Richard W. Riley, Former U.S. Secretary of
The above paragraph is excerpted from the Religious Expression in Public
Schools statement that accompanies Secretary Riley’s letter to school
administrators, May 30, 1998. The paragraph is the only portion that
specifically discusses the topic of teaching about religion. Most of the
document concentrates on other aspects of religion and public education
(e.g., school prayer, graduations, official neutrality concerning religious
activity, student released time).
Secretary Riley concludes his letter to educators with the following quotation.
"… I encourage teachers and principals to see the First Amendment as
something more than a piece of dry, old parchment locked away in the
national attic gathering dust. It is a vital living principle, a call to action,
and a demand that each generation reaffirm its connection to the basic
idea that is America -- that we are a free people who protect our freedoms
by respecting the freedom of others who differ from us.
"Our history as a nation reflects the history of the Puritan, the Quaker, the
Baptist, the Catholic, the Jew and many others fleeing persecution to find
religious freedom in America. The United States remains the most
successful experiment in religious freedom that the world has ever known
because the First Amendment uniquely balances freedom of private
religious belief and expression with freedom from state-imposed religious
"Public schools can neither foster religion nor preclude it. Our public
schools must treat religion with fairness and respect and vigorously protect
religious expression as well as the freedom of conscience of all other
students. In so doing our public schools reaffirm the First Amendment and
enrich the lives of their students."
Consensus Statement (Example)
This early and influential 1988 statement, endorsed by 17 organizations,
continues to be very useful in helping educators to distinguish between
teaching about religion in public schools and religious indoctrination:
- The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
- The school may strive for student awareness of religions, but should not
press for student acceptance of any religion.
- The school may sponsor study about religion, but may not sponsor the
practice of any religion.
- The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but
may not impose, discourage, or encourage any particular view.
- The school may educate about all religions, but may not promote or
denigrate any religion.
- The school may inform the student about various beliefs, but should not
seek to conform him or her to any particular belief.
These six bulleted guidelines have been endorsed by the following organizations: American
Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Jewish
Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs,
Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Christian Educators Association
International, Christian Legal Society, Council on Islamic Education, National Association
of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Evangelicals, National
Association of Secondary School Principals, National Council of Churches of Christ in the
U.S.A., National Council for the Social Studies, National Education Association, National
PTA, National School Boards Association, Union of American Hebrew Congregations,
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
Note: Educators concerned about pluralism need to be aware that, despite
generally the well-intentioned efforts of participating groups to reach a
common sense "common ground" for issuing guidance to teachers, these
mainstream consensus endeavors are essentially political in nature. As
such, they may tend to disregard the voice and ignore the concerns of
citizens whose worldviews are unfamiliar or unpopular. Among the
worldview organizations that participate in a consensus endeavor, varied
monotheistic worldviews are generally well represented, but pantheistic,
polytheistic, and atheistic are not. And, although secular educational, and
civic organizations are usually involved, that is not the same as having
participant groups representing nonreligious worldviews. [For further
discussion of related issues, see Reaching Consensus and Secular vs.
"How Should I Teach About Religion" [Consensus Statement
(Example)] - In A Teacher's Guide to Religion in Public Schools, First
Amendment Center, 1999
This consensus statement [in Section four on page three] has been
endorsed by 21 religious and educational organizations, such as the
American Federation of Teachers, the Anti-Defamation League, Catholic
League for Religious and Civil Rights, National Association of Evangelicals,
National Education Association, National PTA, National School Boards
Association, and others. The file can be downloaded in two different