How to teach religion in public schools the controversial topic of ‘Faith Ed’

By Tom Schaefer

Linda K. Wertheimer, an award-winning journalist, examines how several communities across the nation, including Wichita, dealt with religious-engendered controversies in their public schools and the fallout that followed.
Linda K. Wertheimer, an award-winning journalist, examines how several communities across the nation, including Wichita, dealt with religious-engendered controversies in their public schools and the fallout that followed. Tribune

“Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance” by Linda K. Wertheimer (Beacon Press, 200 pages, $25.95)

Learning about religions is important not only to have a complete picture of world history but to better understand and respect religiously diverse neighbors. Yet, how do you teach the beliefs of various religions in public schools without upsetting proponents of different persuasions and without appearing to impose a specific belief on students?

Linda K. Wertheimer, an award-winning journalist, sought to address that question by examining how several communities across the nation, including Wichita, dealt with religious-engendered controversies in their public schools and the fallout that followed. She spent time in each, talking with teachers and school officials as well as supporters and opponents of efforts to introduce the subject of religion in the classroom.

In the 2013 Wichita incident that she recounts, a photograph of a bulletin board at Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary School that featured the Five Pillars of Islam appeared online. The display was part of a fourth-grade study of religion. “This is a school that banned all forms of Christian prayer,” the “Prepare to Take America Back” Facebook page erroneously declared. “This cannot stand.”

As Wertheimer traces subsequent events, the principal received hateful e-mails and threats about the bulletin board and the presumed indoctrination of students in Islamic beliefs. Many students’ parents and others, however, came to the school’s defense. The principal sent a letter to parents explaining why learning about religions was an important part of education. The idea is to teach, not preach. Though the display was removed, instruction about religion has continued.

Months after the incident, Wertheimer came to Wichita to visit with the teachers and those in the community to see what had changed. The root of the opposition had less to do with a bulletin board display itself, she maintains, and more about presenting the tenets of a religion, particularly Islam, to students.

During her visit, Wertheimer attended several classes at Minneha to see how a first-grade teacher handled the beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The class was taught simple definitions of various religions and the names of their sacred places. Wertheimer liked how the teacher adhered to dictum: “Teach about religion as a part of history. Don’t make judgments.”

The spark that ignited religious controversy in the local high school in Lumberton, Texas, was an invitation to students in a geography class to try on a Muslim garment. It was strictly voluntary. The teacher’s intended purpose was to demonstrate how hot it must be in the Middle East to wear a burka or abaya, clothing often worn by Islamic women. But a Facebook posting led to news media accounts that students were required to wear the garments along with accusations that the teacher had a “pro-Islam bias.”

Despite school officials’ defense of the teacher, many in the town of 8,700 were upset. Islam was violent by nature, some accused, while others pleaded for openness and respect. Later, when Wertheimer visited the town, the subject of religion was still part of the curriculum, though teachers confided to her that they’re more careful in what they say and how they preface their remarks.

Wertheimer provides careful reporting of what led to a crisis and how educators responded in each of the five communities she visited. In most instances, the way religion is taught is said to have improved, though it is in many respects more guarded. After all, tackling the subject of religion in public school means trying to avoid a minefield of dangers: First Amendment rights, a potential of misrepresentation of or offense to a particular person’s faith, and a subtle or overt attempt to promote one religion as more important or truthful than another.

Wertheimer offers as a model for education about religion a program in Modesto, Calif. In 2000, all freshmen in high school were required to take a half-semester class on religions of the world. Prior to that, high school students received cursory instruction about religion in their world history or geography classes. With the new requirement, strict rules were established: no field trips to houses of worship and no trying on of religious garments. An encyclopedia of world religions was the mandated textbook because of the equal number of pages devoted to each major faith. All were attempts to avoid offending a religion or a student or parent’s beliefs.

The superintendent set up a committee to draw up a tolerance policy and sent teachers and staff to sensitivity training workshops led by a gay-rights organization. Even then, controversy erupted. A local pastor of a megachurch claimed that students were being taught “to tolerate immoral behavior.”

Charles Haynes, a leading scholar on First Amendment issues and a prominent mediator of conflicts between schools and religious communities, was called in. He spoke to a crowd with various points of view. His presentation on religion and U.S. history and the Three Rs Project (rights, responsibility and respect) he founded laid the groundwork for what would become a course on world religions at the high school that continues.

In her book, Wertheimer’s own experiences as a Jew growing up and attending schools with mostly non-Jews are incorporated and shape how she believes religion should be taught. She worries that her preschool son Simon will experience the pain of religious prejudice as she did. But she’s hopeful that there are more and more teachers like the first-grade teacher at Minneha, who explained the story of Jesus to her students in a respectful and nonjudgmental way.

“I wished Simon were sitting there,” she recalled of the class that day. “In an ideal world, schools would do more in each grade level and give teachers the training they need to handle the subject with sensitivity and authority.”

“Faith Ed.” lays the groundwork for consideration of a contentious but important subject that needs to be taught in public schools. As she notes, “schools can do more than they do now.” I would add my “amen” to that.

Tom Schaefer is a former columnist and religion editor for The Eagle. He lives in Wichita.