Is it constitutional to teach about religion in a public school?
Yes. In the 1960s school-prayer cases that prompted rulings against state-sponsored school prayer and devotional Bible reading, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated that public school education may include teaching about religion. In Abington v. Schempp, Associate Justice Tom Clark 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.”
May religious scriptures be used in a public school classroom?
Study of history or literature would be incomplete without exposure to the scriptures of the world's major religious traditions. Some knowledge of biblical literature, for example, is necessary to comprehend much in the history, law, art and literature of Western civilization, just as exposure to the Quran is important for understanding Islamic civilization. In this sense, the classical religious texts are part of our study of history and culture.
At the same time, students need to recognize that, while scriptures tell us much about the history and cultures of humankind, they are considered sacred accounts by adherents to their respective traditions. Religious documents give students of history the opportunity to examine directly how religious traditions understand divine revelation and human values.
In a history class, selections from these accounts should always be treated with respect and used only in the appropriate historical and cultural context. Alert students to the fact that there are a variety of interpretations of scripture within each religious tradition.
May teachers use role-playing or simulations to teach about religion?
Recreating religious practices or ceremonies through role-playing activities
should not take place in a public school classroom for three reasons:
- Such reenactments run the risk of blurring the distinction between teaching about religion (which is constitutional) and school-sponsored practice of
religion (which is unconstitutional).
- Role-playing religious practices or rituals may violate the religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, of the students in the classroom. Even if the students are all volunteers, many parents don't want their children participating in a religious activity of a faith not their own. The fact that the exercise is "acting" doesn't prevent potential problems.
- Simulations or role-playing, no matter how carefully planned or well-intentioned, risk trivializing, caricaturing or oversimplifying the religious tradition that is being studied. Teachers should use audiovisual resources and primary sources to introduce students to the ceremonies and rituals of the world's
Is it legal to invite guest speakers to help teach about religion?
Yes, if the school district policy allows guest speakers in the classroom.
If a guest speaker is invited, care should be taken to find someone with the academic background necessary for an objective and scholarly discussion of the historical period and the religion under consideration. Faculty from local colleges and universities often make excellent guest speakers, or they can recommend others who might be appropriate for working with students in a public school setting. Religious leaders in the community may also be a resource. Remember, however, that they have commitments to their own faith. Above all else, be certain that any guest speaker understands the First Amendment guidelines for teaching about religion in public education and is clear about the academic nature of the assignment.
How should teachers respond if students ask them about their religious beliefs?
Some teachers prefer not to answer the question, believing that it is inappropriate for a teacher to inject personal beliefs into the classroom. Other teachers may choose to answer the question directly and succinctly in the interest of an open and honest classroom environment.
Before answering the question, however, teachers should consider the age of the students. Middle and high school students may be able to distinguish between a personal conviction and the official position of the school; very young children may not. In any case, the teacher may answer at most with a brief statement of personal belief — but may not turn the question into an opportunity to proselytize for or against religion. Teachers may neither reward nor punish students because they agree or disagree with the religious views of the teacher.