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Can public schools teach about religion?

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  September 17, 2010 03:37 PM

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You may have seen a video floating around the internet that purports to show public middle-school children from Wellesley, Mass., participating in a prayer service during a school field trip to a Roxbury mosque.

If accurate, the video raises the issue of where we -- and the Constitution -- draw the line between proselytizing and legitimate teaching about world religions.

It's not an easy line to draw. On one hand, the Constitution is clear that public schools may not endorse religion. To do so violates the clause of the First Amendment that says: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

This is the part of the First Amendment that ensures that my religion doesn't become state-sanctioned dogma while yours does not.

On the other hand, teaching about religion is not the same thing as providing religious education. Teaching about world religions in public schools from an educational and non-devotional perspective is permitted by the Constitution and, I believe, should be encouraged. It would be difficult to teach art, music, literature and social studies without considering religious influences.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly said, "[i]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion, or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization."

Learning about other religions (and other traditions, such as ethical humanism and atheism) also is critical to developing greater understanding of different traditions, overcoming fear, and reducing bigotry. Such teaching is particularly important in light of growing evidence that religious intolerance is spreading in our country, as evidenced by recent anti-Muslim publicity stunts such as threatened Quran burnings in Florida.

The line between teaching religion and teaching about religion can be hard to draw, although where, as here, students participated in prayers while on a school field trip, it seems pretty clear that the school lesson went beyond merely learning about religion to engaging students in religious liturgy.

But even taking public school students to observe active religious worship services raises tough questions for teachers and school administrators trying to do the right thing.

May a teacher legitimately prevent a student from joining in a worship service taking place during the field trip -- or would that violate the student's constitutionally-protected right to pray in school?

Does it matter if the student's family is of a different faith but elects to participate in a religious service anyway? Does singing along with a gospel choir count as participating in a religious service -- and who decides?

School officials contemplating such field trips also have to consider whether it is okay to segregate boys from girls when taking a class field trip, as some religions mandate. They also must consider whether public school students can be required to observe religions rules, such as requiring anyone entering a house of worship to wear a head covering or remove their shoes.

Deciding where and how to draw these lines has never been easy and requires a great deal of thought and discussion with parents and students alike. A few school systems seem to do a good job -- notably, Modesto, California. They obviously have put a lot of thought into how to teach about religion without crossing the line into proselytizing.

In addition, the ACLU and other groups have pulled together some guidelines for school officials to aid in this effort to get it right.

In the meantime, I hope that video that is floating around (which includes spliced footage taken out of context from other events) doesn't add fuel to the anti-Muslim fires consuming our nation's attention in recent weeks.

Instead, let's move forward on the assumption that the people involved -- public school officials, teachers, religious leaders, and students -- are acting in good faith. Or at least with good intentions.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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