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Teaching About Religion: Five Ways to Avoid Uproar

Many educators are afraid to teach about religion, because they are afraid of causing a controversy. Linda K. Wertheimer, a veteran journalist, and author of "Faith Ed, Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance," shares advice for how to teach and talk about religion in the classroom. She will be a featured speaker on Nov. 18 at the National Council of Social Studies conference in San Francisco.

By guest blogger Linda K. Wertheimer

For 15 years, Sharon Peters asked for student volunteers to try on a burka and other clothing from Muslim-majority countries, and she had the best of intentions. As a world geography teacher, she wanted to give students a sense of how others live in other parts of the world, and the clothing was a part of a deeper lesson on world religions and their connection to various countries.

Holding up burka.JPGBut during a 2013 class, one student snapped a photo of five classmates wearing the clothing, including the royal-blue burka that covered the wearer from head to toe and hid eyes with mesh. The student posted the picture on Facebook, and it went viral, causing months of controversy for Lumberton High School in Lumberton, Texas, a town of roughly 12,000 near the Louisiana border.

One parent pulled her daughter from the school. Another removed her daughter from Peters' class and told a news show that she believed the teacher was indoctrinating her daughter in Islam. There was a raucous school board meeting, where some speakers spouted Islamophobic rhetoric and others defended a teacher simply trying to improve students' global and religious literacy. Some of Peters' colleagues nicknamed the uproar "burkagate."

"I was blindsided by this," Peters told me in an interview months later at her home, where she pulled out the clothing she had used for so many years without any complaints.

Controversies Over World Religion Classes Blindside Many Educators

Peters was far from alone in her experience. Other teachers and educators caught up in controversies over world religion lessons have been equally blindsided. In case after case, schools or teachers had done the same kind of lesson for years before any problems ensued. Very few of the controversies were clear cut cases of right versus wrong. Rather, they raised questions about how teachers can teach about world religions without causing furor.  

Some may point at Lumberton as an easy target for such controversy given the town is in the Bible Belt and the superintendent said the school system was very dedicated to Christian beliefs. Yet Wellesley Middle School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, also grabbed headlines when it took its sixth graders on a field trip to a mosque and a worshipper invited a handful of boys to join the call to prayer. Wellesley, considered liberal in its leaning, is in one of the country's most secular states. Other schools have faced controversy for having students write out the Muslim statement of belief in calligraphy or for simply having the words "Spread of Islam" on a yet-to-be-filled bulletin board. Student-led wear-a-hijab days, often supported by teachers, have caused backlash, too.

Causes of the Controversy

A rise in Islamophobia since 9/11 has made Islam more of a flashpoint for controversy than other religions on the lesson plan. Islam is a religion Americans, including teachers, tend to know the least about. Teachers often are more apt to invite in Muslim guest speakers or take field trips to a mosque to fill in their own knowledge gap as well as liven a lesson. In nearly every incident, Islamophobic rhetoric was a part of the attack against teachers and schools. So was some people's contention that schools were teaching about Islam and leaving Christianity out even though in every case, teachers were teaching a world religions curriculum that also included instruction about Christianity and Islam. In some cases, Hinduism and Buddhism were taught as well.

Further making conditions ripe for tension over religion in the curriculum, America remains in a tug-of-war between those who want to see more preaching of Christianity in public schools and others who want to make sure the line between church and state remains separate. Earlier this year, a mother sued the Mercer County school system in West Virginia for continuing an overtly religious weekly Bible course, starting in elementary school. The school system, after initially fighting the suit, has put the course on hold. In October, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin urged the state's students to take their Bible to school as part of a national "Bring Your Bible to School Day" promoted heavily by Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization.

The Supreme Court more than a half century ago concluded that teachers cannot preach one particular religion but should teach about different religions. "It 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," Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark wrote in the majority opinion in the 1963 Abington V. Schempp ruling, which banned the practice of teachers leading children in Bible verses. In other words, teaching about religion will help create a more religiously literate society.

But many people, including some teachers, still pine for days of old when it was okay for teachers to lead prayer in schools and hold classroom Christmas celebrations. That sentiment played a role in Burkagate in Lumberton and in a controversy over a guest speaker on Islam in Tampa.

How Teachers Can Avoid Controversy

It's not only legal to teach about world religions, it's required in nearly every state based on standards for middle and high school world history and geography. Teachers need not shy away from teaching about religion because of fear of controversy. They can take risks to create engaging lessons, including having students take different sides in a debate over the construction of a mosque, like a Wellesley teacher did. They can, hopefully, prevent controversy with these five tips.

  1. Avoid experiential exercises, whether it's dress-up with religious garb or simulating how Muslims pray. Dressing up in religious garb can come close to simulating a religious act. It also can offend the people of that faith. Alternative idea: Show videos of worship experiences. Display rather than try on clothing.
  2. Err on the side of caution when picking guest speakers. The American Academy of Religion and First Amendment Center have recommended guidelines for guest speakers on religion, including picking religion scholars over clergy who may be trained to promote their faith. Students' parents generally aren't experts.
  3. Establish firm rules before taking students on field trips. Avoid going when there is active prayer. Make sure students and tour guides know the point is to observe, not participate, in any ritual.
  4. Educate yourself so you can moderate speakers and field trips with confidence. Know when a speaker is straying into proselytizing.
  5. Be proactive with parents when religion is on the lesson plan. Mirror what some teachers do and send a letter a few weeks ahead about the upcoming lesson.  

Nationally, many Americans, including students' parents, may not know that it's legal to teach about the world religions. In a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, only 36 percent of those surveyed knew it was okay to offer a comparative religion course. Less than a quarter knew it was legal to read from the Bible as an example of literature. On the positive side, nearly 90 percent of Americans knew teachers could not lead their students in prayer.

Did Peters step over the line separating church and state? No. She did not promote one religion over another. Students she taught over the years told me her class affected their career paths, and they became more interested in international careers and in learning about people of different faiths and cultures. They heard the message Peters gave to them repeatedly. Religion is a part of many people's culture, who they are, how they think and act. To grasp that message, they did not need to try on a burka.

Connect with Linda and Heather on Twitter.

Image Caption: Sharon Peters, now a retired geography teacher from Lumberton High School in Lumberton, Texas, holds up a blue burka that caused a controversy in 2013 when she asked for student volunteers to try on the garb. Photo by Linda K. Wertheimer.

For more, see this blog by Benjamin Marcus, Seven Steps to Include Religious Studies in a Lesson.

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