Teaching, Not Preaching

Can Public Schools Instruct About Religion Without Violating The Separation Of Church And State

Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion In An Age Of Intolerance by Linda K. Wertheimer, Beacon Press, 196 pp.

When Church & State covers religion in public schools, we’re usually telling you about a constitutional violation. From school-sponsored prayer at football games to creationism in science classes, some public education officials too often promote one religion to the exclusion of all others. Often, it’s necessary to file suit to get schools to comply with the law.

But the courts haven’t banned religion from schools; they simply banned proselytization. It’s legal to teach about religion in an objective manner as an academic subject. Some activists, like Hobby Lobby owner Steve Green, try to exploit this by designing curriculums that are actually sectarian. Most schools simply don’t bother trying to navigate this murky legal territory. A few, however, have tried to incorporate it into their curriculum as a means to encourage intercultural understanding.

That’s the subject of former Boston Globe education editor Linda K. Wertheimer’s new book from Beacon Press. Faith Ed. examines comparative religion courses in schools around the country and scrutinizes the community outrage that often springs up around them.

For Wertheimer, it’s personal.

She opens the book with an incident close to her own home: Schools in nearby Bedford, Mass., had reported a rash of anti-Semitic incidents. Teachers spotted children playing a game called “Jail the Jews”; in another incident, Christian children accused Jewish children of “killing Jesus.” A Jewish teenager reported that her classmates had thrown pennies at her in the hallway, based on anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews and money.

Those events prompted school administrators to host a community meeting in collaboration with local rabbis. But anti-Semitic harassment in public schools isn’t new, as Wert­heimer well understands. Sometimes, it’s even inadvertently facilitated by a school administration that violates the First Amendment.

In an anecdote she relates near the end of the book, Wertheimer describes being one of few Jewish children in a predominately Christian public school system in Hancock County, Ohio. In a spectacular display of disregard for the Constitution, her elementary school allowed a local church member to teach students Christian lessons about Jesus during class hours.

Wertheimer objected to the les­sons. When her parents complained to the school, she was made to sit out the class hour in a closet.

That public humiliation led to bullying and harassment from other students, which continued well into her high school years; someone once etched a swastika onto her brother’s car. Two years after Werth­eimer graduated, another student finally filed suit to stop the classes.

These personal experiences frame Wertheimer’s approach to the subject. The problem – religiously motivated harassment – was obvious. But what about a solution?

At the Bedford community meeting she attended, the same teenage girl who’d suffered anti-Semitic abuse at the hands of her classmates offered a suggestion: Perhaps her school should make a concerted effort to teach students about different religions.

“No longer are we arguing about whether teachers can lead students in the Lord’s Prayer,” Wertheimer writes. “The Supreme Court settled that about fifty years ago by ruling that it was wrong for schools to promote one religion over another. Today, many schools are sorting out the best ways to reduce ignorance about religion.”

But community sentiment can make the process difficult.

In 2013, a photo of Lumberton, Texas, students in Islamic clothing went viral. Critics claimed that it was evidence a high school teacher had attempted to convert students to Islam. The reality was rather less inflammatory: The students voluntarily tried the clothing on as part of a world geography class. The teacher, Sharon Peters, had taught the course for 15 years.

Meanwhile, Lumberton schools incorporated Christianity in a number of ways. Its cheerleaders displayed religious banners at football games; it was an almost exclusively Christian community. In response to the controversy, the local school district released a letter saying that it “supports the viewpoints of the Christian belief and welcomes students in the expression of that faith.”

But that did little to quell the outrage, and conservative outlets like WorldNetDaily and Fox News only stoked it further. Peters and the school received vicious hate mail for weeks.

That’s an extreme reaction, but as Wertheimer reports in Faith Ed., it’s becoming fairly common. When teachers attempt to educate students about minority religions – especially Islam – in academic settings, they face extreme backlash.

She examines several of these cases in detail. One of the most egregious concerns Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary School in Wichita, Kan. It’s a public magnet school, and it implements a special curriculum designed by educator E.D. Hirsch. Comparative religion courses are taught as early as first grade; students learn about five major world religions in an objective setting.

The school conducted these les­sons largely without incident for years. But in 2011, a student’s family began raising concerns about the curriculum.

Liz and Larry Karp identify as Messianic Jews, a conservative sect that combines Jewish traditions with the Christian belief that Jesus was the Messiah. They repeatedly complained about the way the school taught religion, though there appears to be little constitutional basis for their concerns. Their objection to the courses primarily stemmed from the fact that their son had learned that other religions worshipped different gods; the Karps believed it was a sin to so much as mention deities aside from the one they worshipped. The school provided their son alternative assignments.

But the Karps are also responsible for the school’s viral infamy.

In 2013, their son, Benjamin, reported seeing a bulletin board labelled “The Five Pillars of Islam.” The board was intended to correspond to a fourth grade world religions unit on Islam, but it disturbed Benjamin – and his parents.

They complained to the school’s administration again, urging them to teach students about the “sixth pillar of Islam,” something they defined as “the annihilation of infidels.” No sect of Islam recognizes a “sixth pillar,” and Minneha administrators told the family they wouldn’t include it in lessons. The Karps then complained to the superintendent of Wichita schools but heard nothing in response.

So they took matters into their own hands. Liz Karp took a photo of the bulletin board; a family friend posted it to a Facebook page called “Prepare To Take America Back.” After BareNakedIslam, an anti-Muslim site, posted the photo, it went viral.

The school received so many threats it hired extra security; administrators removed the bulletin board for the semester in an attempt to quiet concerns.

Minneha administrators allowed Wertheimer to sit in on classes to gauge their real content. Children learned the definition of words like “monotheistic” and “polytheistic” and sat through lessons on the meanings of different religious holidays. These lessons do not, as Werth­eimer correctly concludes, violate the First Amendment.

But the classes aren’t flawless. The Minneha class, for example, doesn’t appear to include any instruction about atheism, agnosticism or humanism. It sticks exclusively to theistic belief systems.

Wertheimer profiles another class, based this time in Modesto, Calif., that teaches students about the definitions of “atheist” and “agnostic.” It isn’t clear from her account if the class also includes a more detailed discussion of secular humanism as a belief system. As numbers of religiously unaffiliated Americans continue to grow, it would behoove religion teachers to incorporate secular identities in their lesson plans.

It’s also still unclear how successful the courses are, but Wertheimer does include some helpful preliminary research that indicates they can at least reduce social stigma toward members of minority belief traditions. 

Wertheimer’s reporting demonstrates a keen grasp of the First Amendment and its guarantee of separation of church and state. She repeatedly emphasizes that the goal of these courses should be to teach, rather than to preach, and as a result, Faith Ed. is an excellent piece of well-researched and legally accurate long-form journalism.