Teaching about religion vs.
teaching religion as truth
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." 1According 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
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.
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."
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
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:
About the source of Biblical text:
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
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
To teach that some individuals and groups believe that it is
inerrant, infallible and God-inspired, while others believe the
opposite would be constitutional.
Teaching the Bible as real history:
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.
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.
About the creation stories in the early chapters of
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
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.
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.
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.
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
About life after death and salvation:
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.
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
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
Teaching about religion is fraught with hazards for a school district:
It is unlikely that Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christian
parents would find a balanced, inclusive, objective religious comparative
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.
Liberal Christians, and non-Christians would probably approve of the
course, particularly if it covers a wide range of religions and is an elective
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.
It is unlikely that a school district could win a court challenge unless
their religion course(s) were balanced, inclusive, and objective.
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.
U.S. Supreme Court decision: "School District of Abington Township
v. Schempp," 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963).