This article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

Past controversies concerning religion in Texas public schools have involved such issues as prayer at high school football games, campus access for religious groups, and student-led prayer on campus. Recently however, issues have arisen on some Texas public school campuses about the academic study of world religions and instruction involving religion-adjacent subjects such as the Bible, the Quran and yoga. There appears to be a certain degree of unfamiliarity with this concept, despite the fact that it is addressed by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for certain secondary social studies courses. 

For instance, World History teachers are expected to teach subject matter concerning the development of major world religions and the various effects of such in different geographical regions throughout the world. Among many such topics, the TEKS specifically address: 

  • the development of monotheism, Judaism and Christianity    
  • the spread of Christianity and its unifying role in medieval Europe and the Byzantine Empire 
  • the characteristics of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches 
  • the political, economic and social impact of Islam on Europe, Asia and Africa
  • the Crusades and the Protestant Reformation
  • interactions between Muslim, Christian and Jewish societies, and between Muslim and Hindu societies  

The study of U.S. History necessarily includes the role of religious disputes, persecutions and the growth of early Protestant churches in the settlement and development of the earliest North American colonies. Religion is connected to subjects other than history, e.g., world geography, art and literature, and can also be studied in psychological and sociological contexts. 

Concerns typically cited about teaching religious subjects in public schools are varied. One concern is that students are highly susceptible to peer and public pressure, especially at younger ages. Minority religions or sects may be ignored, causing some students to feel excluded or ostracized. Students may feel compelled to explain their particular cultural or religious beliefs. Further, teachers may not have an accurate understanding or information about all or many religions. Students raised with no religious faith may feel confused or otherwise be uncomfortable, while similar concerns may arise if teachers appear to be atheist or agnostic.*

While the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that teaching religion in public schools is constitutionally prohibited, teaching about religion in a secular context is clearly permissible. As such, world religions may be taught for historical, cultural and/or literary value, but not in a doctrinal manner that encourages acceptance or adherence to a specific religious text, faith or tenet. Properly teaching about religion requires that the teacher do so in a neutral, objective and factual manner. Specifically, teachers should:

  • not teach religious subjects in a devotional or doctrinal manner
  • be sure that subject matter does not promote or inhibit religion
  • not denigrate religion in general, any specific religious belief, or lack of religious belief  
  • not interject personal beliefs or advocate those of certain students
  • be extremely sensitive to individual student beliefs and practices 
  • not encourage student acceptance or conformity with any particular religious belief or practice 
  • not teach religion under the pretense of teaching about religion 

As America and the world become more pluralistic through ever-changing migration patterns, there is a greater need for a more refined understanding of religious diversity. Recent religiously motivated or sanctioned acts of terrorism have heightened distrust and prejudice, not to mention misunderstanding, of certain religions. Education about religion can address many misconceptions.    

Accomplishing the foregoing presupposes that teachers have both the requisite background education and training for teaching about religion. Many colleges and universities offer comparative religion courses as part of general studies programs. Any social studies teacher candidate should consider such coursework. 

Further, in 2017 the National Council for the Social Studies added a component about teaching about religion to its College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework.                        
Education about religion not only promotes understanding and respect for world religions, and as such, different cultures, but also serves to teach students about the principle of religious liberty, a fundamental element of freedom and democracy in America — as also required by the TEKS.

 

*The Texas Education Code provides as follows: Sec. 26.010.  EXEMPTION FROM INSTRUCTION.  (a)  A parent is entitled to remove the parent’s child temporarily from a class or other school activity that conflicts with the parent’s religious or moral beliefs if the parent presents or delivers to the teacher of the parent’s child a written statement authorizing the removal of the child from the class or other school activity.  A parent is not entitled to remove the parent’s child from a class or other school activity to avoid a test or to prevent the child from taking a subject for an entire semester.
(b)  This section does not exempt a child from satisfying grade level or graduation requirements in a manner acceptable to the school district and the agency.