ERIC Identifier: ED363553 Publication Date: 1993-08-00
Author: Risinger, C. Frederick Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Religion in the Social Studies Curriculum. ERIC Digest.
In the past decade, educators and policymakers have agreed that public
schools should strengthen and improve teaching about religion and its function
in human affairs. While religion is an important element in many areas of
literature, art, and music, the social studies--especially history and
civics--provide the best opportunity for including religion in the curriculum.
Several state education departments and local school districts have issued new
mandates and guidelines for including religion in the curriculum. Textbook
publishers have expanded and improved their coverage of religion, and many
supplementary materials are available at both the elementary and secondary
levels. For most school systems, the question has changed from "Should we teach
about religion?" to "How should we include the study of religion in the
curriculum?" Several local, state, and national programs have been established
to help teachers and administrators answer this question.
RELIGION AND THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Perhaps no issue regarding
the public schools is more explosive or divisive than decisions about religion
in public life--particularly in the public schools. In the United States,
balancing the two clauses in the Constitution's First Amendment--involving
individual religious liberty and the prohibition against promotion of religion
by government--has remained one of the most persistent dilemmas in public
discourse. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the free exercise of religion
clause prohibits public schools from violating the religious beliefs of students
by compelling them to salute the flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance (West
Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943). The Court has also ruled that
the First Amendment's establishment clause prohibits state-mandated religious
exercises, such as the formal saying of prayers, even when the prayers are
non-denominational and participation is voluntary (Engel v. Vitale, 1962 and
Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985).
Two recent Supreme Court decisions have affected the place of religion in the
overall school program. In June 1993, the Court let stand a federal appeals
court decision, affirming a Texas school district's policy permitting students
to give a "non-proselytizing" prayer at graduation ceremonies, as compatible
with the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals for
the Fifth Circuit said, "A majority of students can do what the state acting on
its own cannot do to incorporate prayer in public high school graduation
ceremonies" (Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, 1993). This
decision came only a year after the Supreme Court ruled that school officials
could not schedule and oversee prayers by religious leaders at graduation
ceremonies (Lee v. Weisman, 1992). The Court has also ruled that public schools
which allow community groups to use school facilities after hours may not bar
religious groups from these facilities (Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union
Free School District, 1993).
These decisions do not answer all the questions about the role of religion in
the public schools. However, it is clear that the Court has not prohibited
teaching and learning about religion in social studies courses.
TEACHING ABOUT RELIGION IS IMPORTANT
It is essential that
students be taught about religion in human affairs, if they would have a
complete education. Much of history, art, music, literature, and contemporary
issues have religious roots. Many of the current public debates in this nation
and crises affecting many of the world's peoples require an understanding of
religious ideas and their impact on history and contemporary thought. The bloody
and seemingly insoluble conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina is exacerbated by the
historical enmity between Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims in
the Balkan region. Such concepts as nationalism, imperialism, anti-colonialism,
slavery and anti-slavery, freedom of conscience, capitalism, and
environmentalism are inextricably tied to religion. Religious differences in
Northern Ireland have evolved into bitter economic and social class
distinctions. And resentment of past political and economic imperialism provides
fuel for Islamic fundamentalism from Morocco to Afghanistan.
The Supreme Court consistently has upheld and even recommended that teaching
about religion be included in the school curriculum. Justice Robert Jackson
argued, "The fact is that, for good or ill, nearly everything in our culture
worth transmitting, everything which gives meaning to life, is saturated with
religious influences.... One can hardly respect a system of education that would
leave the student wholly ignorant of the currents of religious thought that move
the world society" (Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948).
Justice Tom Clark 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" (School District of Abington v. Schempp, 1963). In
a concurring opinion in the same case, Justice William Brennan held that
"whether or not the Bible is involved, it would be impossible to teach
meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences or the humanities without some
mention of religion."
Within the past decade, several state agencies and local school districts
have created mandates and issued guidelines regarding teaching about religion.
California was one of the first with the publication of the handbook, Moral and
Civic Education and Teaching About Religion (1988). Firmly grounding instruction
about religion in citizenship education, the handbook was published the same
year as the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools, K-12
(1988) and was revised in 1991. North Carolina, Utah, and Georgia are among
other states that have either state mandates or guidelines on religion in the
Professional educational organizations have provided leadership and support
for teachers who want to increase and improve instruction about religion. A
report issued by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
(ASCD) maintains, "The proper role of religion in the school is the study of
religion for its educational value." Although religion and religious issues
cross the lines of traditional disciplines in education, they are particularly
tied to the social studies curriculum--most often in history or civics-related
courses. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in its document,
"Including the Study about Religions in the Social Studies Curriculum: A
Position Statement and Guidelines," states, "Knowledge about religions is not
only a characteristic of an educated person, but is also necessary for
understanding and living in a world of diversity."
GUIDELINES FOR EFFECTIVE, CONSTITUTIONAL INSTRUCTION ABOUT RELIGION
While several sets of guidelines for teaching about religion in
the schools have been developed by professional organizations and school
systems, one of the most useful is a report, "Religion in the Public School
Curriculum: Questions and Answers," issued by the Americans United Research
Foundation (1988). One major aspect of the report is a set of guidelines that
distinguish between constitutionally approved teaching about religion and
unconstitutional religious indoctrination. They are summarized below:
* The school's approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
* The school strives for student awareness of religions, but does not press
for student acceptance of any one religion.
* The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion.
* The school exposes students to a diversity of religious views; it does not
impose any particular view.
* The school educates about all religions; it does not promote or denigrate
* The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seek to
conform students to any particular belief.
INSTRUCTIONAL STRATEGIES FOR TEACHING ABOUT
Students (and their parents) should know that religion is an
important part of the curriculum. Several approaches used by teachers and
curriculum designers have produced successful results.
* NATURAL INCLUSION. Religion should be studied in its historical and
cultural context. History, as well as art, literature, and music, provide ample
opportunities to include the study of religion. In addition, examination of
local communities and religious festivals and holidays can help students to
realize that there is wide diversity of religious thought, and to see the
differences and similarities between religions in their historical and modern
* FAIRNESS AND BALANCE. Classroom discussions must be free of advocacy on the
part of teachers and students. Various perspectives should be presented, but no
religious or anti-religious points of view should be advocated by the teacher.
Fair and balanced study must include critical thinking about religion in
relation to contemporary issues and historical events.
* RESPECT FOR DIFFERENCES. Religious differences should not be ignored by
presenting all religions as basically the same. Neither should religious faith
be explained as merely a sociological or psychological phenomenon. Teachers can
explain theories of religion and teach the social, economic, and political
context of various religious events, but it is essential to see how religious
groups interpret their own faith and practices.
* USE OF RELIGIOUS SCRIPTURES. One of the best ways to have students see
religious traditions through the eyes of their adherents is to use excerpts from
religious scriptures. These documents provide a foundation for understanding the
culture and history of many groups. Just as the BIBLE is essential for
understanding Christianity, for example, the QUR'AN provides knowledge of Islam.
Students should also learn that differing interpretations of religious
scriptures exist within major religious groups and that these differences have
led to major historical events, such as the Protestant Reformation or the
Islamic schism that occurred after the death of Mohammed.
* ROLE PLAYING. Role playing should NOT be used as a method of teaching about
religion. Such activities, no matter how well-intentioned, may lead to
stereotyping and oversimplification. They also may violate the conscience of
students asked to play roles in a group with different religious traditions than
their own. Instead, primary documents, audio-visual sources, or classroom guests
can provide students with first hand knowledge about religious beliefs and
LINKING INSTRUCTION ABOUT RELIGION TO CIVIC EDUCATION
recent trend in instruction about religion is to link it to civic or citizenship
education. The religious liberties guaranteed by the Constitution's First
Amendment are part of the basic civic values of American citizenship. When we
teach about the many cultures and religions of our nation and the world, we must
also teach the shared civic values and responsibilities of the U.S. democratic
tradition. One widely used religious liberty curriculum states that these values
are so fundamental and enduring that they may be called the three R's of
religious liberty. They are rights, responsibilities, and respect.
* RIGHTS: Religious liberty is a basic and inalienable right founded on the
inviolable dignity of the person. In a society as religiously diverse as the
United States, it is essential that schools emphasize that the rights guaranteed
by the Constitution are for citizens of all faiths.
* RESPONSIBILITIES: Religious liberty is not only a universal right, but it
depends on a universal responsibility to respect that right for others. Students
must understand the inseparable link between the preservation of their own
constitutional rights and their responsibility as citizens to protect the rights
* RESPECT: Debate and disagreement are vital to effective social studies
instruction and are a major element in the preparation of students for
citizenship. Yet, in a pluralistic society, how we debate and disagree is
crucial. Good citizenship implies a commitment to civic values that enable
people with diverse religious and philosophical perspectives to treat each other
with respect and civility. Note: This ERIC Digest is a modified and up-dated
version of ERIC Digest EDO-SO-88-7, which was issued in August 1988.
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list includes
references used to prepare this Digest. The items followed by an ED number are
available in microfiche and/or paper copies from the ERIC Document Reproduction
Service (EDRS). For information about prices, contact EDRS, 7420 Fullerton Road,
Suite 110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2852; telephone numbers are (703)
440-1400 and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an EJ number, annotated monthly
in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE), are not available through
EDRS. However, they can be located in the journal section of most libraries by
using the bibliographic information provided, requested through interlibrary
loan, or ordered through UMI or ISI reprint services.
American Association of School Administrators. RELIGION IN THE PUBLIC
SCHOOLS. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators, 1986. ED
Dilzer, Robert J. INCLUDING THE STUDY ABOUT RELIGIONS IN THE SOCIAL STUDIES CURRICULUM: A POSITION STATEMENT AND GUIDELINES. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1984. ED 521 350.
Haynes, Charles C. A TEACHER'S GUIDE TO STUDY ABOUT RELIGION IN PUBLIC
SCHOOLS. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991. ED number will be assigned.
Haynes, Charles C. RELIGION IN AMERICAN HISTORY: WHAT TO TEACH AND HOW.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1990. ED
Henson, Ann. "Classroom Media Resources." OAH MAGAZINE OF HISTORY 6 (Winter
1992): 53-57. EJ 453 653.
History-Social Science Framework and Criteria Committee. HISTORY-SOCIAL SCIENCE FRAMEWORK FOR CALIFORNIA PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Sacramento: California State Department of Education, 1988. ED 293 779.
MORAL AND CIVIC EDUCATION AND TEACHING ABOUT RELIGION.HANDBOOK ON THE LEGAL RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF SCHOOL PERSONNEL AND STUDENTS IN THE AREAS OF MORAL AND CIVIC EDUCATION AND TEACHING ABOUT RELIGION. 1991 REVISED EDITION. Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Education, 1991. ED 341 613.
RELIGION IN THE CURRICULUM: A REPORT FROM THE ASCD PANEL ON RELIGION IN THE CURRICULUM. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1987. ED 288 776.
RELIGION IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOL CURRICULUM: QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS: Silver Spring, MD: Americans United Research Foundation, 1988. ED number will
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