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Religion in the public schools, libraries, etc.

Teaching about religion vs.
teaching religion as truth

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Methods of teaching religion:

Many educators mistakenly believe that religion has no place in the curriculum - that the public schools must be religion-free zones. This is not true. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, religion can be taught, as long as the teaching is presented "objectively as part of a secular program of education." 1 According to "Religion in the public schools: A joint statement of current laws," issued in 1995 by 35 agencies representing 10 religions and ethical systems:

"Students may be taught about religion, but public schools may not teach religion...The history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature...are all permissible public school subjects. It is both permissible and desirable to teach objectively about the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries. One can teach that the Pilgrims came to this country with a particular religious vision, that Catholics and others have been subject to persecution or that many of those participating in the abolitionist, women's suffrage and civil rights movements had religious motivations." 2

In summary: 

bullet Teaching religion as truth: Presenting the beliefs of a particular denomination or religion as actual truth is unconstitutional. So is the teaching of the Bible as truth, or the teaching of religious topics from a sectarian point of view.
bullet Teaching about religion: Teaching students about religions, or about the influences that religions have had on society is constitutional. "Such instruction can and does take place in any number of classes, such as courses in comparative religion, the history of religion, world history and American history." 3

The beliefs of a single faith group (e.g. conservative Christianity) cannot be taught as truth. What can be taught is a form of comparative religion. The latter includes teaching beliefs of various wings (conservative, mainline, liberal) within Christianity, the beliefs of other significant religions, the beliefs of the non-religious in a balanced manner. At the same time, the school needs to be careful that it does not promote religion over secularism or vice-versa

Six examples (two of the Bible itself, two from the Hebrew Scriptures and two from the Christian Scriptures) might be useful to illustrate what is allowable and what is prohibited. The author is not a constitutional lawyer. However the guidance given by a number of court decisions seems to give a very clear indication of what is permitted:

bullet About the source of Biblical text: 
bullet Some religious groups believe that the Bible is inerrant; other religious and secular groups believe that it contains errors. Teaching the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible or the belief that God inspired its authors would violate the first principle of the separation of church and state: that schools may not promote the beliefs of one religion or faith group over any other. A teacher who instruct her/his students that the Bible is not inerrant would also be violating the Constitution, for the same reason. 
bullet To teach that some individuals and groups believe that it is inerrant, infallible and God-inspired, while others believe the opposite would  be constitutional. 
bullet Teaching the Bible as real history:
bullet It is unconstitutional to teach some Biblical stories as historical events. (e.g. the creation story, the worldwide flood, the tower of Babel, the exodus from Egypt, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, etc.) This is because there is no consensus that these events really happened. However, other events (e.g. Babylonian captivity, capture of Jerusalem by the Assyrians) have been verified by archaeological evidence; all or essentially all researchers agree that they really happened. The events can be taught as fact.
bullet To teach a balanced, inclusive view would be acceptable. This would discuss how some individuals and groups believe that all of these earlier events actually happened, while others believe that many of the events are to be understood as religious propaganda, fiction, myth or symbolism. 
bullet About the creation stories in the early chapters of Genesis: 
bullet To teach as a literal truth that God created the world, its life forms and the rest of the universe in six days is unconstitutional, because it would promote the beliefs of a single group of religions traditions within Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Other traditions within those same religions, and non-Christian religions consider these chapters to be fictional, mythical or symbolic.
bullet A constitutional approach would be to teach Genesis as one of hundreds of creation stories found in societies and religions all over the world. To fully more educate the students during a comparative religion course, the teacher might describe the three main views about the origin of the universe, along with their many variations: creation science, theistic evolution and naturalistic evolution.
bullet About the authorship of the Pentateuch: 
bullet The Bible says in many places that the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written by Moses. It would be unconstitutional to teach this as fact, because there is no consensus that he was actually the author.
bullet A constitutional approach would be to teach the two main views of the authorship of the Pentateuch: that many conservative Christians believe that the books were written by Moses under the inspiration of God, while most non-conservative Christian theologians hold to the Documentary Hypothesis: that the writings that form the Pentateuch were edited by one or more redactors. The redactor(s) worked with the writings of four authors, who lived in various locations in Palestine, over a period of many centuries. Each wrote with the goal of promoting his/her own religious views. 
bullet About the nature, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus:
bullet To teach that the crucifixion and bodily resurrection of Jesus actually happened is not constitutional because no consensus exists on these events. Instructing students that Jesus is the son of God is similarly unconstitutional. Teaching one faith group's beliefs as truth and another as false again violates the first principle as listed above.
bullet There are major deviations among faith groups about these matters. Jews regard Jesus as a very human, 1st century rabbi/teacher from Palestine. Most Christians view him as the Son of God - one component of the Trinity. Muslims, who form about 20% of the world's population, view him as a great prophet -- the most important next to Muhammad. They believe that Jesus is not the Son of God, was never crucified, and thus not resurrected. Some liberal Christians believe that he was a Greek cynic philosopher whose life story was enhanced with beliefs taken from the god-men of nearby Mediterranean religions. There are many other beliefs concerning Jesus. 
bullet About life after death and salvation:
bullet To teach that Heaven and Hell exist as locations where individuals will be rewarded or punished after death is unconstitutional. To teach that one must be saved by trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior is also not permitted. To teach reincarnation or that there is no after-life is similarly prohibited. Different faith groups have varying beliefs in these areas. To teach one set as truth violates the first principle of separation of church and state.
bullet Some believe that heaven and hell are actual locations where people go permanently after death. Others interpret heaven and hell symbolically. Some believe in an intermediate state or location called Purgatory. Some believe that everyone will be saved; others that only a small percentage of the world's population will attain heaven. Some religions teach that there is no Heaven and Hell, but that one is reincarnated and passes through many lifetimes before merging with God. Many religious liberals, Humanists, Atheists, etc. believe that neither heaven, hell, reincarnation or an afterlife exist. Instructing students in the full range of beliefs would be constitutional.

Presumably, in order to retain a neutral stance towards religion, the course might have to cover major religious texts, not just the Bible. And it might have to cover secular documents like the Humanist Manifesto. 

Teaching about religion is fraught with hazards for a school district:

bullet It is unlikely that Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christian parents would find a balanced, inclusive, objective religious comparative religion course to be acceptable. As noted above, it would expose their children to beliefs that they strongly disagree with. Some believe that these other religions are led by Satan or his demons.
bullet Liberal Christians, and non-Christians would probably approve of the course, particularly if it covers a wide range of religions and is an elective course.
bullet Agnostics, Atheists, free thinkers, Humanists and others might object, feeling that objective courses could not be taught by teachers who follow an Abrahamic faith (e.g. Judaism, Christianity & Islam or some other monotheistic belief system.
bullet It is unlikely that a school district could win a court challenge unless their religion course(s) were balanced, inclusive, and objective.
bullet There are many civil rights and First Amendment organizations in the U.S. that have extensive expertise in suing school boards on constitutional matters.

Any board of education that decides to add a religion course can expect to generate intense conflict and anger within the community. They might expose themselves to an expensive court battle that they had no hope of winning. The result might well be a stalemate, with no Bible or religion courses being taught. 

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  1. U.S. Supreme Court decision: "School District of Abington Township v. Schempp," 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963).
  2. "Religion in the public schools: A joint statement of current laws," (1995-AUG) by 35 agencies, at: 
  3. "The good book taught wrong: Part One" at: 
  4. National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools has a web site at:  Phone: (336) 272-3799; Email; Postal address P.O. Box 9743, Greensboro, NC, 27429.
  5. James R. Beasley, et al., "An introduction to the Bible." Abingdon Press, (1991). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  6. "The good book taught wrong: 'Bible History' classes in Florida's public schools," at: This is an Acrobat PDF file. You can obtain a free software to read these files from Adobe Acrobat reader.
  7. Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, 933 F. Supp. 582, 596 [N.D. Miss. 1996). Quoting Wiley v. Franklin, 468 F. Supp. 133,149 (E.D. Tenn. 1979])
  8. Robert Sanchez, "State investigating Bible history courses in 14 districts," Miami Herald, 2000-JAN-31, at:  
  9. National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools has a web site at:  Phone: (336) 272-3799; Email; Postal address P.O. Box 9743, Greensboro, NC, 27429.
  10. Zondervan's Publishing House's web site is at:

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Copyright 2000 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JAN-16
Latest update: 2006-OCT-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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