May 10, 2012Vol. 42, Issue 6

Sewing the Seeds of Service

Promoting Religious and Civic Literacy in Public Schools

Bruce Grelle near flowers

Bruce Grelle near flowers

"They are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses. … One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates." [1]

A 2010 survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life confirmed Prothero’s observations, concluding that “large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions—including their own.” [2] 

When it comes to the place of religion in public schools, the Pew survey found that 89 percent of Americans correctly understand that public school teachers may not lead their classes in prayers.  At the same time, 67 percent believe—incorrectly—that public school teachers cannot read from the Bible as an example of literature, and 51 percent incorrectly think that public schools may not offer a class comparing the world’s religions. In other words, there is considerable awareness of what public schools cannot do with regard to religion; there is much less awareness of what public schools can do.

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In the 1960s the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored religious exercises, such as prayer and devotional Bible reading, are violations of the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment.  Many Americans—supporters and opponents of school prayer alike—believe that these court decisions effectively banished religion from the public schools altogether. However, this belief is mistaken.

The 1963 case of Abington School District v. Schempp acknowledged the important role played by religion in history, society, and culture, and the court made it quite clear that learning and teaching about religion in the public schools, when undertaken with an academic rather than a devotional aim in mind, is perfectly consistent with constitutional principles. Indeed, as Justice Tom Clark famously wrote in the Schempp decision,

"…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. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."

Since the late 1980s something of a new consensus has emerged regarding the question of why and how study about religion should be incorporated within American public schools. Rooted in the religion clauses of the First Amendment, this consensus is set forth in several documents that have been endorsed by a remarkably broad range of educational, religious, and civic organizations and distributed by the U.S .Department of Education to every public school in the nation. At the heart of this consensus is a sharp distinction between teaching about religion in public schools, on the one hand, and the promotion of religion or religious indoctrination, on the other hand.

"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 religion.

The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion.

The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.

The school educates about all religions, it does not promote or denigrate religion.

The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seek to conform students to any particular belief." [3]

In 2010 the American Academy of Religion published Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States.[4]  The Guidelines are based on the threefold premise that illiteracy regarding religion 1) is widespread, 2) fuels prejudice and antagonism, and 3) can be diminished by teaching about religion in public schools using a non-devotional, academic perspective, called religious studies. The Guidelines emphasize the civic aims of religion education; they contend that learning about religions as internally diverse and historically dynamic systems of belief and practice can help diminish the stereotypes and misunderstandings that allow certain forms of bigotry and chauvinism to emerge unchallenged.

Research on the outcomes of a required high school course on world religions in Modesto, California, provides some empirical evidence of its efficacy for civic education. Surveys and interviews of students showed statistically significant increases not only in students’ knowledge about other religions but also in their levels of passive tolerance (willingness to refrain from discrimination) and active tolerance (willingness to act to counter discrimination).[5] Among the other findings were that Modesto’s course had a positive impact on students’ respect for religious liberty and their support for basic First Amendment rights; students left the course with an increased appreciation for the similarities between major religions; and contrary to some expectations, the course did not stir up any notable controversy in the community. [6]


Of course the success of Modesto’s course should not be exaggerated. The study’s authors acknowledge that several of the course’s positive effects were relatively modest and might not be long-lasting. They also raise concerns about teacher training and about the course’s non-critical “warm and fuzzy” focus on similarities between religions. Since local schools and communities vary so widely, the study does not propose that a required world religions course should be implemented in all school districts. But the authors conclude that their research “does allow for cautious optimism that a required world religions course similar to Modesto’s could be implemented in many, if not most, school districts with the careful planning and diligent cultivation of community support that went into implementing Modesto’s course.” [7]

More than any other single American institution that I can think of, the public schools are places where people of all different faiths and those of no religious faith come together on a regular and sustained basis. By helping to dispel our ignorance of one another’s most sacred values and traditions, the academic study of religions in public schools can play a key role in promoting religious and civic literacy and in helping citizens learn to live with their deepest differences rather than being torn apart by them.


[1] San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007, 1.

[2] U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (September2010) at http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religoius-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

[3] A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, (Nashville: First Amendment Center, 1999), 3.

[4] Produced by the AAR Religion in the Schools Task Force, D.L. Moore, Chair, April, 2010. http://www.aarweb.org/publications/Online_Publications/Curriculum_Guidelines/AARK-12CurriculumGuidelines.pdf

[5] Emile Lester and Patrick S. Roberts, Learning About World Religions in Public Schools: The Impact on Student Attitudes and Community Acceptance in Modesto, Calif., First Amendment Center, Nashville, 2006. See also Emile Lester and Patrick S. Roberts, “How Teaching about World Religions Brought a “Truce to the Culture Wars in Modesto, California,” British Journal of Religious Education, 31:2, September 2009: 187-200; Emile Lester, Teaching about Religions: A Democratic Approach for Public Schools, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2011.

[6] Ibid, pp. 6–7.

[7] Ibid, p. 8.