The Texas Board of Education, the nation’s second largest purchaser of public school textbooks, is revising its K-12 social studies curriculum and deciding how to characterize religion’s influence on American history. Three consultants have recommended emphasizing the roles of the Bible, Christianity and civic virtue of religion. As America’s children go back to school, how would you advise the Texas board? How should religion be taught in public schools?
God has never been kicked out of the public schools. Teaching about religion in the classroom is among many appropriate ways religion can be included in the school day. But, of course, the devil (excuse the pun) is always in the details of how to teach about religion.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized the constitutionality and even desirability of teaching about religion, going back to the prayer and Bible reading decisions in the early 1960s. A wide array of religious leaders and church-state experts fashioned a statement on teaching about religion 15 years ago that was incorporated into federal Department of Education guidelines that both the Clinton and Bush administrations embraced. These guidelines provide:
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.