Schools reach delicate balance in teaching about religion

Constitutionally, faiths may be taught about but not promoted in public schools.
CENTREVILLE, Va. -- Ninth-grader Matt Vasquez, 14, raised his hand in world history class and asked questions that sounded like they belonged in Sunday school: "Why do we use a cross as a symbol? If Jesus had been crucified on a circle, would we use a circle?"
Kurt Waters responded the way a public-school teacher is supposed to, masking his own beliefs and measuring every word: "What do you mean by 'we'?" he asked during the discussion of Christianity at Centreville High School in Fairfax County, Va. "When you say 'we,' you mean to say Christians, right? Everybody isn't a Christian."
Teaching about religion is tough terrain for public-school teachers, but something that a growing number of educators think is imperative. Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks generated new interest in Islam, many educators were seeking ways to teach about religion without proselytizing.
"There is a new awareness that public schools need to do more to help people understand one another across religious differences," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, which works with schools on constitutional approaches to teaching about religion. "They simply have neglected that part of their mission."
Content: Public schools generally tackle the subject as part of history and geography. Some high schools offer comparative-religion courses as an elective.
Teaching about religion in public schools has a long, controversial history in the United States, with courts repeatedly asked to rule on whether a particular approach is constitutional. Supreme Court rulings say public schools can teach about religion but not promote it. For years, some educators thought that precluded the subject altogether.
Today, virtually every school district in the country includes some mention of religion in its standards for teaching social studies. Yet a study released in 2000 by the First Amendment Center and the Council on Islamic Education indicated that superficial treatment persists and that the topic is excluded from many classes.
For example, in U.S. history courses at the elementary and secondary level, coverage of religion tapers off after the Colonial period, the report said. World history, world cultures and world geography courses laid out in the standards differ in their capacity to teach about world religions.
Out of bounds: Some districts take the teaching of religion a step too far. A few years ago, more than a dozen Florida school districts were offering Bible courses that taught the creation story and other biblical events as history. After the People for the American Way Foundation objected, the state ordered the districts to change the courses.
"It is OK to teach about religion and to teach about the Bible as long as the teaching is presented objectively as a secular part of education," said Judith Schaeffer, deputy legal director for the foundation. "A lot of schools don't know what that means, and we see schools crossing the line from teaching about religion to teaching religion, promoting a particular religion."
Integration: In fifth grade, Fairfax County pupils take a world cultures course that includes basic information about Judaism, Christianity and Islam and sets them in a historical context, according to social studies supervisor Sara Shoob. In sixth grade, teachers discuss the importance of religion in the establishment of the Colonies in the New World and its impact on U.S. history to 1877.
In ninth and 10th grades, as part of the two-year world history and geography curriculum, students learn about the three monotheistic religions as well as Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.
Waters works hard as the chairman of the history department at Centreville High to give equal treatment to various faiths. In World History I, he starts with Judaism in the fall, teaches Christianity in December with the Roman Empire and tackles Islam in February with the Ottoman Empire.
After Vasquez's question about the cross, the class discussed crucifixion. One student asked why Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah despite "proof" in the Bible, and Waters explained that there is no historical proof on which everybody agrees.
"I go to a Methodist church, and when I heard Jesus was Jewish, it opened up a whole new thing for me," said Kanika Singh, 14, who is in Waters' ninth-grade Honors World History course.

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