In recent weeks, fights have erupted in Georgia and Tennessee over how Islam is taught in public schools.
Before this dispute becomes a full-blown culture war, my advice is for people on all sides to take a deep breath, sort out what’s actually going on in schools, and then consider how school officials can best respond.
As a starting point, parents should be reminded that teaching about religions in public schools – as contrasted with religious indoctrination – is not only constitutional, but also necessary if students are to be properly educated about history, literature, art, music and other subjects. Such teaching must be objective, academic and age appropriate.
What has triggered conflicts in Georgia and Tennessee is not so much inclusion of study about religions in the curriculum – some level of religious literacy, after all, is required by all state standards. The fight is over how teaching about religions – in this case Islam – is carried out in the classroom.
An example frequently cited by angry parents is a fill-in-the-blank quiz question used in a Georgia school: “Allah is the ____ worshiped by Jews & Christians.” Correct answer: “same God.”
While it is accurate that followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all attribute the revelations of their scriptures to the God of Abraham, it is deeply disputed among adherents of the three faiths as to which revelations were actually given by the one God first revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures.
That’s why teaching about religions through attribution is essential in public schools. Adding the words “Muslims believe that” to the quiz question, for example, would clarify for students that “same God” is a statement of faith by Muslims, not a statement of doctrine accepted by all Christians and Jews.
To be fair, the disputed question about God is one of four that appears under the heading “beliefs of Islam.” But a sixth-grader is unlikely to grasp that nuance. Best practice is for teachers to attribute all statements of doctrine or belief to the faith tradition under study.
Another, perhaps more substantive, complaint by parents is an assignment reportedly given by some teachers asking students to memorize the wording of the Five Pillars of Islam (which address belief, worship, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage).
At first blush, this may appear to be a straightforward exercise designed to ensure that students retain what they have learned about the core beliefs and practices of Muslims.
But the first and most important pillar, called the Shahada, is the Islamic testimony of faith – “There is no true god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is the Messenger (Prophet) of God” – recited by faithful Muslims and, when said with conviction, the sign of conversion to Islam.
Yes, students need to learn something about the “five pillars” if they are to have a basic understanding of Islam. But requiring students to memorize and then write or recite the Shahada is not, in my view, the appropriate pedagogy for teaching about this aspect of Islam in a public school classroom.
To put this in another context, consider the outrage that would likely ensue if a public school teacher taught about Christianity by requiring students to memorize and write out or recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed.
It is one thing for students to be literate about core Christian and Islamic teachings (essential for understanding history, art, literature and contemporary events); it is quite another to require memorization or recitation of prayers or confessions of faith.
The lesson here is not that public schools are deliberately indoctrinating students in Islam – poorly worded or misguided assignments are a far cry from intentional proselyting or faith formation. The lesson is that “teaching about religion” looks a lot like indoctrination to many parents if not done carefully.
Rather than trying to solve this problem by severely restricting mention of religion in the classroom – as some Tennessee lawmakers are advocating – schools should do more to prepare teachers to teach about religions in ways that are both constitutionally and educationally sound.
Of course, even when teachers get religious studies right they will not satisfy everyone. Some parents will argue against any mention of religion, others will object to exposing their child to religions they don’t like, and still others will complain about how their religion is treated.
But public schools have no alternative but to teach what students need to learn if they are to be fully educated about history and society. As long as the religion content in the curriculum is based on solid scholarship and taught objectively as required by the First Amendment, schools are doing their job.
It takes work. In my experience, school districts with clear policies on religion and adequate staff development focused on how to teach about religions have very few parental complaints – and enjoy broad community support for academic study about religions.
As the fights in Georgia and Tennessee remind us, school districts that ask teachers to teach about religions without adequate training are asking for trouble.
Religion is, after all, an emotional, deeply personal topic for many Americans. When studied in a public school, religion must be handled with First Amendment care.
Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center.