Religion and Public Education Project


The Religion and Public Education Project consists of four main initiatives:

  1. Pre-Service Teacher Education
  2. Professional Development for Classroom Teachers
  3. The California 3 Rs Project (Rights, Responsibility, Respect)
  4. United Nations Alliance of Civilizations “Education about Religions and Beliefs” (ERB) Clearinghouse

Pre-Service Teacher Education

In 1988 the California State Board of Education adopted a History-Social Science Framework that includes attention to the topic of religion in the K-12 curriculum.  This document stresses the importance of religion in world and U.S. history and states that "students must become familiar with the basic ideas of the major religions and the ethical traditions of each time and place" (2001 p. 7).  Beyond California, religion is also addressed by the public school curricula of most other states in the country (see Teaching about Religion in National and State Social Studies Standards (PDF)). Yet many teacher education programs do not adequately prepare future teachers to deal with this topic. 

In an effort to address this gap in the education of future teachers, the Comparative Religion and Humanities Department at CSU, Chico has designed and implemented a course titled Religion in American Public Schools. This course introduces prospective teachers to First Amendment principles and U.S. Supreme Court decisions that set the framework for the treatment of religion in the public schools, and it introduces them to the basic beliefs, practices, and histories of several of the world's major religions. The course was first offered in spring 1997, and since that time two sections of the course with thirty to forty students per section have typically been offered every semester. The constituency for the course is made up of social science majors who plan to apply to a single-subject teaching credential program on their way to becoming junior or senior high school teachers, and liberal studies majors who plan to apply to a multiple-subject credential program and become elementary school teachers. Religion in American Public Schools is part of the CSU On-Line Liberal Studies Degree Program, which was funded by a grant from the CSU Chancellor's Office and developed jointly by CSU, Chico and CSU, Sacramento.

Professional Development for Classroom Teachers

In California, the world history curriculum for sixth, seventh, and tenth grades deals explicitly with the religions of India, China, and the Middle East. Other grade levels deal with the role of religion in American history and society, and some general knowledge of world religions is a necessary background for understanding many of the “current events” that are discussed throughout the K-12 curriculum. Teachers must also be prepared to understand and cope with the religious diversity that typically exists in their own classrooms. A basic knowledge of the world’s religions will not only help teachers be more effective when teaching about ancient civilizations, current events, or the history of the United States, it will also help them to communicate with students and parents from a variety of religious communities ranging from evangelical Protestants to traditional Hmong, from Latter-day Saints (Mormons) to Muslims, from Catholics to Sikhs, and from Bahais to Buddhists to secularists. 

Despite the historical and cultural importance of religion, many teachers feel unprepared to deal with the range of legal, curricular, and pedagogical issues that arise in connection with this topic in the public school setting. Without proper preparation and support, teachers and schools will continue to ignore and avoid the topic due to a legitimate fear that discussions of religion are fraught with the potential for conflict and controversy.

Since 1989, faculty members in the Comparative Religion and Humanities Department at CSU, Chico have participated as presenters and resource scholars in a series of professional development workshops, forums, and institutes designed to prepare and support teachers in their efforts to teach about the world's religions in constitutionally permissible and academically responsible ways. RPEP, working in collaboration with local school districts, the California International Studies and History-Social Science Subject-Matter Projects, and the CSU, Chico Department of Education, has organized a variety of presentations, workshops, and field trips to local religious sites for classroom teachers. Representative titles of these activities over the past years include: A First Amendment Framework for Thinking about Religion and Public Education; Learning to Live with Our Deepest Differences; What, Why, How, (and How Not!) to Teach about Religion in Public Schools;  Children of Abraham: Learning and Teaching about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam;  The Historical Roots of the Arab-Israeli Conflict; Beyond the Veil: Women, Islam, and Cross-Cultural (Mis-) Perception; Religions of India: Conflict and Continuity; Religions of the Ancient Greeks and Hebrews; and Religion, Politics, and Global Issues: Teaching about Religion after September 11.

The California 3 Rs Project (Rights, Responsibility, Respect) 

The California 3 Rs Project(opens in new window) is built on the conviction that the guiding principles of the First Amendment stand at the heart of democracy and at the foundation of citizenship in a diverse society. The 3 Rs Project reaffirms the shared civic principles of the Religious Liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Religious liberty for people of all faiths and none is a basic and inalienable right founded on the inviolable dignity of the person.

Religious liberty is not only a universal right, but it depends upon a universal responsibility to respect that right for others.

Debate and disagreement are vital in a democracy.  Yet, if we are to live with our differences, how we debate, and not only what we debate, is critical.  At the heart of good citizenship is a strong commitment to the civic values that enable people of differing ethnic backgrounds and religious convictions to treat one another with civility and respect.

Launched in 1993, the California 3 Rs Project is a non-profit, non-partisan teacher and community education project of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in cooperation with the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. The 3 Rs Project has a statewide organization with a well-developed agenda for working with public school teachers and administrators. Training sessions bring together teams from the public schools – teachers, administrators, school board and community members – who attend a seminar on the First Amendment and the history of Supreme Court decisions regarding religion and public education. Through discussion and case studies, participants learn how to use constitutional principles to negotiate conflicts and to work toward consensus on issues of religion and diversity confronting schools and local communities. The RPEP Director has served on the statewide Steering Committee of the California 3 Rs Project since 1997 and is the Project coordinator for the northeastern region of California.

United Nations Alliance of Civilizations “Education about Religions and Beliefs” (ERB) Clearinghouse

The Alliance of Civilizations (AoC) was established in 2005 at the initiative of the governments of Spain and Turkey and under the auspices of the United Nations.  The Alliance aims to support projects that promote understanding and reconciliation among cultures globally and, in particular, between ‘Muslim’ and ‘Western’ societies. The Alliance works in four program areas: youth, media, education, and migration.

Participants at the AoC’s Madrid Forum in 2008 recognized the important role that education about religions and beliefs can play in promoting cross-cultural understanding and tolerance in an era of globalization. They called for the establishment of an online clearinghouse to support such education. The ERB clearinghouse(opens in new window) is in the process of development and focuses on primary and secondary education about religions and beliefs as a starting point. Material on civic education, tolerance education, ethics education, and other forms of education aimed at enabling people with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to learn to live together will also be featured. This clearinghouse is meant to be useful to policy-makers, educators, and researchers in these fields.

RPEP became one of fifteen international partners with the ERB clearinghouse in 2009. Partner organizations will periodically act as a gatekeeper of the ERB website, soliciting and posting content on the site and contributing articles and comments to the ERB Journal and Forum.