There has been much debate over the role of religion in education, particularly in public schools. What is undisputable is that religion is as relevant as ever today, especially in an increasingly diverse global landscape.
The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Below is one way to sum up the First Amendment:
Right to believe (religion) --> Right to express belief (speech) --> Right to organize around your belief (assembly)
Obviously, the founders saw religious freedom as an inalienable right that deserved the highest protection (“free exercise clause”), but what about the “separation of church and state” that was expressed by Thomas Jefferson (the phrase actually does not appear in the Constitution, as widely thought) and implied by the establishment clause—that the government may not endorse or promote religion? Can religion still be incorporated into the school curriculum?
YES. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the teaching about religion in public schools (as opposed to teaching religion, as in a religious institution) due to the importance of understanding religion in the context of history and culture. In Abington v. Schempp (1963), Justice Tom Clark wrote, “[I]t 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.” Surely, understanding international relations today would be impossible without some degree of religious literacy. And that is how religion should be approached in public schools – with academic objectivity, diversity and cultural sensitivity.
The purpose of this webpage is to provide some ideas for teaching comparative religion in a way that stresses the importance of religion as well as respecting its proper place in the school curriculum. The lesson plans are not designed to teach specific religions, but rather, to provide the methodology for having productive religious dialogue. The Comparative Religion chart may be a helpful starting point for creating more extensive curriculum on world religions.
Images from Ed Underwood and Clear Mind Meditations.