Instruction and curriculum specialists face an array of problems they need to address every day. Their primary job is to develop new curricula and improve existing curricula at schools. They evaluate the existing curricula and make suggestions about changing it, conduct research on various topics and provide recommendations for school authorities about how the current curricula can be improved, and teach, guide, and mentor other teachers and administrators.
Moreover, instruction and curriculum specialists need to be aware of current guidelines, policies, and regulations to ensure that school curriculum and teaching methods adhere to them. One of the most controversial issues such specialists may face is the decision of whether religion should be included in the public school curriculum.
On the one hand, it has long been understood that education without a comprehensive study of religion is incomplete (Kniker, 1985). On the other hand, teaching religion can be seen as an ethical problem and a violation of the First Amendment (Haynes, 2017). The present paper provides an overview of how religion can be included in the school curriculum in order to avoid violating the law.
In order to understand the controversy of the issue, it is vital to acquire a historical perspective on the matter. Christian faith has been an integral part of the school curriculum in the US since the 1600s (Kniker, 1985). A similar situation could be seen in Ireland, where after acquiring independence in 1922, the government relied on schools owned and operated by religious denominations (Heinz et al., 2018).
However, as the population in the US became more diverse in terms of confessions, there appeared a growing need to take a step away from using Christian faith as the basis of public education (Kniker, 1985). After the Revolutionary War, it became obvious that education should be a foundation of the nation’s unity (Kniker, 1985).
However, unity was impossible if education did not take into consideration other confessions. Additionally, in the 1800s, several cases arose about using public money for teaching Catholicism and Bible readings (Kniker, 1985). Thus, the US was slowly moving towards prohibiting religious teaching in public schools.
The issue was finally solved only in 1963 when the US Supreme Court ruled against Bible reading in public schools (Kniker, 1985). However, this decision is often misunderstood for the prohibition of teaching about religion. In fact, the Supreme Court claimed that such practices were vital (Kniker, 1985). For instance, Justice Tom Clark said that “one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or of the history of religion and its relation to the advancement of civilization” (Kniker, 1985, p. 9).
Moreover, Justice Arthur Goldberg added that “government must inevitably take cognizance of the existence of religion and, indeed, under certain circumstances, the First Amendment may require that it do so” (Kniker, 1985, p. 10). Thus, the historical approach allows to see the route of controversy over the subject.
Currently, the central problem with including religion in the curriculum is distinguishing between teaching for religion and teaching about religion. According to Bleisch and Bietenhard (2018), teachers do not have enough certainty about what they are allowed to do when discussing religious views. However, it is clear that teachers’ confessions affects the worldview of teachers and may influence the statements they make to students (Heinz et al., 2018). Therefore, many schools avoid teaching about religion in schools (Keller et al., 2017). Teaching about religion may be of great interest to students and can develop religious tolerance.
Current law prohibits teaching religion and allows teaching about religion. In other words, the approach to teaching religion should be academic rather than devotional. This implies that teachers should promote awareness about religion rather than acceptance of any confession (Haynes, 2017).
Current policies require that schools expose students to the diversity of religious views and aim at educating about all confessions without seeking to conform students to any particular belief (Haynes, 2017). This includes strictly avoiding practicing faith in the presence of students and treating religious holidays (including Christmas) as an opportunity to educate while using symbols of these holidays as examples of religious practices (Haynes, 2017).
Teachers may reply to questions about their confession; however, it is encouraged that they consider the age of students before answering, as students may be unable to distinguish between the personal and official view (Haynes, 2017). For the same reason, teaching about religion in primary school may be inadequate (Keller et al., 2017). However, these limitations do not apply to students, as they are welcome to demonstrate their religious views at school freely (Haynes, 2017). Students may even distribute religious literature and form religious clubs (Haynes, 2017). In summary, teaching about religion should be included in the curriculum with caution due to several limitations.
Strategies for including courses about religion include needs assessment and teacher education. According to Logan and Hartwick (2019), religion is widely ignored in teacher education. Teachers need to realize that “the influence of religion appears to be more and more significant in our interconnected and interdependent world” (Hartwick, 2019, p. 167).
Therefore, since teachers are inexperienced about how religion should be taught, on-the-job training is required. According to Hartwick (2019), such training should include formal lectures and collaborations within groups of teachers. Inside these groups, teachers need to discuss and role-play different situations to understand how their religious views may become a source of bias while teaching about religion (Hartwick., 2019). However, before training teachers, it is critical to understand studying about religion is acceptable.
Thus, teachers need to evaluate if students in the school will be able to understand that learning about religion does not push them to conform to any confession (Keller et al., 2017). Moreover, school authorities need to ask all the stakeholders, including parents and the community, if such courses should be included in the curriculum (Keller et al., 2017). If everyone agrees, instruction and curriculum specialists may start changing the school curriculum to include information about religion.
During their carrier, instruction and curriculum specialist may face the question of whether to include religion in the school curriculum. While in some cases, teaching religion may be a violation of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court and scholarly literature support the inclusion of information about all religions in the school curriculum. However, teaching about religion is associated with many controversies. Therefore, before including religion in the school curriculum, it is vital to conduct a needs assessment and provide additional training to teachers.
Bleisch, P., & Bietenhard, S. (2018). Teaching religion and religious experience in Swiss public schools. Research on Religious and Spiritual Education, 11, 157-172.
Haynes, C. (2017). A teacher’s guide to religion in the public schools. First Amendment Center.
Heinz, M., Davison, K., & Keane, E. (2018). ‘I will do it but religion is a very personal thing’: teacher education applicants’ attitudes towards teaching religion in Ireland. European Journal of Teacher Education, 41(2), 232-245.
Keller, T., Camardese, A., & Abbas, R. (2017). “We don’t talk about that here”: Teachers, Religion, Public Elementary Schools and the Embodiment of Silence, a Binational United States and Israel Study.
Kniker, C. B. (1985). Teaching about religion in the public schools. Fastback 224. Phi Delta Kappa, Eighth and Union, Box 789, Bloomington, IN 47402.
Logan, K. R., & Hartwick, J. M. (2019). Teaching and talking about religion: Strategies for teacher educators. Social Studies Research and Practice, 14(1), 167-179.