The main concern in recent years has been how Islam is handled in the curriculum and in textbooks. Opponents have included atheists and Jews. Supporters of the courses tend to be the students taking the classes and the majority of their parents. They are familiar enough with the material to understand that yes, they are learning about Christianity and other religions.
Anderson: One glaring aspect in the introduction of Islam, Hindu and all of the religions other than Christianity and Judaism was the complete absence of teachers who practice these faiths leading any of the teaching of religion in the schools you visited. Consistent with the windows and mirrors metaphor—where a teacher’s race, culture, religion enables students to peer into the realities of others and see themselves reflected in teacher’s identity—could more public school teachers of varied faiths provide a richer learning opportunity when teaching about religion?
Wertheimer: I think that depends on the teacher. Just because a teacher is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh does not mean he or she is particularly knowledgeable in that particular faith or any religion, for that matter. Another tricky aspect is that many teachers are careful about not revealing their religion to students. They want to appear unbiased, particularly when teaching a course about religion. If a teacher wore a hijab, students would probably discern she was Muslim. Does that provide a richer learning opportunity? Perhaps. I met a public school math teacher who was Sikh and taught in a school near Modesto. She wears traditional Sikh clothing, including a head scarf, and believes she has helped dispel stereotypes by her presence in the school.
Anderson: From Texas cheerleaders holding banners with Bible verses at football games to an agnostic parent in Wichita, Kansas, “furious [to learn] that teachers were talking about religion,” separation of church and state when applied to public schools seems consistently manipulated and misrepresented. Is there just a basic misunderstanding of this concept?
Wertheimer: I think people generally know teachers cannot lead students in prayer and that schools cannot promote one religion over another. I think in some cases, it’s not a misunderstanding but rather a cockiness in some parts of the country that, “Since we’re all Christian here, we can do what we want.” A school superintendent I interviewed in Texas saw no problem with prayer at graduations or football games and told me, “It’s a little bit different here in the South.”
When it comes to courses about the world religions, though, I see a misunderstanding of what’s legal and what’s not. Many people, whether they are parents or lawmakers, seem surprised that it’s legal to teach about different religions in public schools, and studies back that view. The Pew Forum survey on religious knowledge found just 36 percent knew public school teachers could offer a comparative religion course, while roughly 90 percent knew teachers can’t lead a class in prayer. Adults and schoolchildren alike need instruction on the First Amendment and how the Supreme Court has interpreted what is legal and what is not when it comes to religion on school grounds.