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The Presence of Religion in the Classroom

As we continue to pursue our careers in the classroom it is important to stay abreast of issues that
may arise. One such topic which is in need of inquisition is religion and how it impacts our
classrooms and our students.

What does the Law say?

The first two clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that
“Congress shall make no law respecting as establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof...” It has been determined by the Supreme Court that official acts of worship, or
any aspect of them, including Bible reading, and prayer reciting are violations of our
constitutional provisions. In A. Stafford Clayton’s book Religion and Schooling, he details the
Court’s decision by adding that it has been made clear that this does not mean the establishment
of secularism as a type of religion (Clayton, 243). Thus, it does not argue that our students,
parents, and community cannot have faith or particular religious beliefs, but that said beliefs are
not a part of our direct classroom instruction. For us as teachers, this means that our religion, the
religion of our students, or lack thereof, should not infringe upon the learning environment in our
classrooms. “The people of the United States have built a system of common public schools
open to those of any race, creed, or social class, comprising in this sense a single comprehensive
system under public control, financed by tax funds, and devoted to the enlightenment of all so
that they can think for themselves” (Clayton, 231). The importance of such policies is to allow
us as teachers to foster an environment in which our students can grow as individuals and learn
to be more meta-cognitive.

Rights of Students

In The Rights of Religious Persons in Public Education by John Whitehead it is implied that the
public school system has an obligation to protect the expression of both religious and non-
religious viewpoints equally (Whitehead, 93). Moreover, the classroom should allow student
expression to flourish by removing the fear of punishment associated with the discussion of
controversial and political viewpoints (Whitehead, 96). However, in discussing the topic of
religion with Jacob Gray, a counselor from Armada High School, he stressed the importance of
having these conversations in ways that uphold the need for students to ‘respectfully-disagree’
and to listen and share opinions without making judgments and without causing offense. This
can be difficult. Thus, as future teachers we need to be cognizant of the balance between
incorporating student’s beliefs and culture into the classroom and the necessity to be neutral.

Rights of Parents

Although students are of the utmost importance, we must be aware of the influence their parents
have upon their belief systems. According to the 14th Amendment – Due Process, parents have
been guaranteed the “liberty” to direct the education and upbringing of children under their
control (Whitehead, 164). Ultimately, we must answer to our students, our administrators, and
our parents in terms of our curricular and classroom choices. The Hatch Amendment allots
another right to parents in terms of their student’s education. This amendment allows parents the
right to examine materials utilized in the classroom (Whitehead, 171). Moreover, the Free
Exercise Claim of parents allows them to request changes in texts and courses which offend their
religious beliefs (Whitehead, 168). As teachers, when choosing our texts, we need to fully
preview each choice and be aware of any issues that could arise with students, parents, and the
community. In an interview with a teacher at Armada High School, Jason Hundey, he supported
this idea by adding that he keeps a bibliography on file and has had a few occasions in which he
had to e-mail it to inquiring parents. Thus, we must also always be prepared with a rational to
support our choices; something, that as teachers, we should anticipate.

Rights of Teachers

According to the Supreme Court, academic freedom incorporates “the principle that individual
instructors are at liberty to teach that which they deem to be appropriate in the exercise of their
professional judgment” (Whitehead, 108). However, the First Amendment is “not a teacher
license for uncontrolled expression at variance with established curriculum content” (Whitehead,
114). As we continue into our classrooms, it is important to keep reflecting upon our choices
with the understanding that each choice has its own implications. Though said choices are at our
discretion, we cannot allow our preferences to impede on our student’s and parent’s beliefs.
Furthermore, in an interview with a curriculum director, Marsha Davis, she added that in her
district the administrations makes sure that each year they review the protocol and state policies
and insure that these are relayed to their teachers. This way, teachers stay aware of their rights,
their student’s rights, and the rights of parents.

How does this look in the classroom today?

In Religion in the Public Schools Richard McMillan poses the idea that “perhaps discussion of
controversial issues are at odds with the prevailing philosophy of public education, but, if that is
the case, it must be seriously questioned whether public education is adequately preparing
students for lives as enlightened adults and citizens” (McMillan, 105). As teachers, this debate is
central to how religion is handled within our classrooms. Should religion be omitted or
embraced? How do we validate student’s home life while also respecting the policies of public
education? Obviously, these questions do not have a miracle answer to mitigate the controversy
of the topic of religion in the classroom. However, the implications of these decisions on our
classrooms cannot be ignored.

Text and Curriculum

Hidden Curriculum

The agency we employ in deciding texts for our curriculum speaks to our students about our own
beliefs. Both omitting and embracing certain texts can communicate to our students the
positions we hold on certain issues. Thus, ‘hidden curriculum’ applies to the idea that as
teachers, we may unknowingly present our students with an argument about belief systems,
including religion. This was supported in the interview with Mr. Gray. He feels that teachers
should “never avoid the topic – teenagers tap into the sense that you, as a teacher, are avoiding
something. This topic has the potential to truly build relationships and a sense of respect
between students and teachers, along with building a solid and respected community of learners
when they all understand one another.” Our students are smart, we know that. Thus, we cannot
ignore the fact that they are aware of the choices we make in our classrooms, including what
topics to discuss. More importantly, Jason Hundey, also of Armada High School added that
students and teachers really connect when conversations cease to be superficial and start to
questions each other’s opinions.” Thus, we can use these topics as a basis to build relationships
as opposed to silencing students just because these topics that may be controversial.

However, there is another way in which ‘hidden curriculum’ appears in the classroom. Many
times, our rational and purposes for the texts and curriculum we choose are not always explicitly
relayed to our students. Thus, the value of certain texts that may cause controversy or spark a
discussion about belief systems is not always communicated. We must be aware of what
message our choices send if we are not vocal about the specific reasoning behind said choices.
“A curriculum which ignored religion would itself have serious religious implications. It would
seem to proclaim that religion has not been as real in men’s lives as health or politics or
economics. By omission it would appear to deny that religion has been and is important in man’s
history – a denial of the obvious. In day-to-day practice, the topic can not be avoided. As an
integral part of man’s culture, it must be included” (McMillian, 106). As teachers, we cannot
ignore that religion exists. Each of our students will come with their own viewpoints and we
cannot invalidate those viewpoints by completely ignoring their existence.

Omit vs. Embrace

The idea of ‘hidden curriculum’ complicates the impact of the policies explored above. Put
simply, what do we omit and what do we embrace? For instance, the name Shakespeare is likely
to come up in most high school curriculum planning meetings. However, Murray Thomas in his
book God in the Classroom adds an interesting point that “there are over 1,300 documented
biblical allusions in Shakespeare. If kids don’t understand the biblical allusions, they don’t
understand Shakespeare” (Thomas, 88). Often times, in texts in order to fully grasp the message
being portrayed, religion is a topic that may arise. Now, this is not to support the idea that
Shakespeare cannot be read and appreciated without comprehensive knowledge of the Bible.
However, contextualizing Shakespeare’s many works with the time period in which it was
written, does not leave room to omit religion and still gain the intended meaning of these specific
allusions. Therefore, do we omit Shakespeare because certain students may not have the prior
knowledge to make inferences about the religious imagery? As teachers, the choice becomes
whether to omit or embrace the allusions as relevant to the study of the work. Obviously,
Shakespeare is a specific example however, this idea is a microcosm for the decision each
teacher faces in planning curriculum.

Worship in the Classroom

Beyond the choices that we make in our curriculum, there are decisions that we make about the
way our classroom functions. Specific issues that may arise within the topic of religion are
prayer and scripture, holidays and celebrations, released excusals, and symbols and maxims.
Particular students may uphold traditions that encourage them to pray before a meal (including
school lunches). “Specifically, it is a Muslim tradition according to the requirements of Islam to
pray five times each day” (Thomas, 128). Thus, it becomes a question of whether or not we
allow our students to be released from class in order to have time to participate in this daily
ritual. Moreover, allowing excusals for religious purposes is a question that teachers and
administrators face in enforcing school and classroom policies. An optimal outcome would be
for us as teachers to have the ability to plan our major assignments and assessments around times
when our students would need to be released for rituals, in order to model religious tolerance.

Often times, requests for release is in regards to holiday celebrations. Beyond excusals for
religious holidays, the question of incorporating certain celebrations within the classroom is
equally as important. For example, celebrating a “Christmas” party can be promoting the
Christian faith and can be considered a direct act of worship. However, substituting a
“Christmas” celebration for a celebration centered on “Santa” may potentially seem disrespectful
to devout Christians. Therefore, careful consideration is necessary when making decisions
regarding religious celebrations. According to Marsha Davis, certain schools have switched
‘Halloween’ celebrations into parties that celebrate the ‘Harvest.’ Thus, students can still enjoy
those classroom experiences without it being centered on a tradition that may be foreign or
uncomfortable to them. Also, Cindy Smith, a curriculum coordinator in the same district added
that subtle changes such as “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” can make a
difference to your students.

Finally, the issue of dress code is in question. Does wearing a religious headdress fall under the
same rule of the typical ‘no hats in school’ policy? Do we as teachers allow exceptions to this
rule in order to once again model religious tolerance? It was previously stated that secularism
should not be considered a religion. Therefore, a rule about ‘no hats’ cannot be refuted on the
basis that wearing a baseball cap is equivalent to a headdress in terms of religious attire.
Moreover, allowing a headdress would be an exception to the rule, and not a reason to amend it.

What do we do now?

“We would do well to encourage the full, responsible discussion of problems of policy about
religion and schooling rather than asserting our intransigencies or failing to come to grips with
the deep social, political, and educational issues” (Clayton, 234). Simply put, religion is an issue
that must be discussed. With the implications above, and the questions below, we will begin to
seriously consider the different ways in which religion will arise in the classroom as well as our
responses to those scenarios.

Teaching about Religion

The overarching question of this section is the difference between teaching and preaching. There
is an important distinction between teaching about religion for the implications it may have on
text and curriculum as well as in the effort to promote tolerance and understanding of one
another’s perspectives; versus promoting or attempting to convert students to one’s own belief
system. A.L. Sebaly wrote in his book, Teacher Education and Religion, “The public schools
can teach objectively about religion without advocating or teaching any religious creed. To omit
from the classroom all references to religion and the institutions of religion is to neglect an
important part of American life. Knowledge about religion is essential for a full understanding of
our culture, literature, art, history, and current affairs” (Sebaly, 5). Thus, this idea ties back to the
question of omitting or embracing. As teachers, we must present all material that is useful to
obtaining the meaning of the texts we utilize in our classrooms. Should this include religion?

Furthermore, if we desire to create a secularist classroom; we must also validate our student’s
home life and the belief systems it encompasses. This is not to say that we should allow our
students the opportunity to preach or attempt to convert their peers. However, we also should
not discount their cultural capital and the values and perspectives they bring to the classroom. In
order for this to be realized in the classroom, we must be knowledgeable about our student’s
beliefs and how those beliefs govern their lives and their choices in education. Again, this means
knowing our students. Just as we discuss the need to be aware of our student’s culture, we must
also be aware of the place religion holds within that culture.

In validating our student’s home lives and culture we must also decide whether or not our
classroom instruction serves a purpose other than relaying information about the content. For
instance, the McMillan quote above points to the effort to produce ‘enlightened adults and
citizens.’ Part of this enlightenment includes the way in which our students handle and approach
discussions that involve the differences between their own beliefs and that of their peers. In Ian
MacMullen’s book Faith in Schools, he explores the idea of civic education and citizenship. “As
we have seen, a key component of civic education is to teach children the virtues of liberal
democratic citizenship. These virtues—toleration, mutual respect, reciprocity—are centrally
concerned with the way we respond to differences, especially the kind of differences between
comprehensive value systems that we find between members of different religious communities,
and between those with faith and those who are nonreligious” (MacMullen, 31). This quote gets
to the heart of facilitating respectful discussions in which students can learn from one another. In
an interview with Aric Foster, also of Armada High School, he added that school is a place in
which students should be allowed to “bounce ideas off one another, and become enlightened to
other opinions and belief systems.” As teachers, we should create an environment that these
discussions can occur in a way that benefits our classrooms and broadens our student’s views.

With this awareness, in order to teach about religion, objectivity is necessary. A variety different
religions should be presented as a differing point-of-view and not necessarily the ‘right or wrong’
point-of-view. By supplying information on religious beliefs that connect to texts or history,
such as Puritanism, we allow our students to have the background knowledge to contextualize
different ideas within texts, rather than omitting those influences all together.

Questions to Ponder

Can we teach objectively about religion? Does hidden curriculum affect the teaching about
religion? Does teaching about religion benefit the instruction of certain texts? Can we allow
students to be resources in teaching about religion?

Text and Curriculum


In terms of curriculum, we have discussed at great lengths the need to incorporate multiple
voices within our classrooms and within our texts. However, we must also answer the question
of what texts are to be omitted and which are to be embraced. Furthermore, in terms of obtaining
information about religions in which we are unfamiliar brings forth the question of whether or
not to utilize our students and their cultures as a valid source of instruction. Is this possible in
continuing to create a respectful environment in the classroom, or will this somehow ostracize
the student? Again, as teachers this may relate to our ability to read our students and to read our
classes.

Some solutions that have been presented in terms of choosing texts include: hiding all texts with
religious references, utilizing only secular material, including an elective Bible class, or
including an elective Comparative religions class (Thomas, 89). There is no specific answer to
this broad question, and the decision is ultimately up to individual communities, school systems,
and specifically, teachers. However, these are questions we must think about, as future teachers,
in order to be prepared for the way these topics will surface in our classrooms and more
importantly, how we will respond to them.

Questions to Ponder

How do we incorporate multiple voices, including potential voices we are not “experts” about?
Because we are not experts, how do we pull students perspectives into the lesson? Do we let our
students be a primary source of religious information? How do you read the community and
parent base to decide whether to omit/embrace? Do you ever ignore their opinions? Should we
offer an elective Bible class? If we offer an elective Bible class, should we offer a Comparative
Religions class as well?

Worship in the Classroom

As we previously discussed, it would be beneficial for our students and our classrooms, if we
were aware of the major traditions key to our student’s belief systems. Furthermore, in terms of
release times and excusals we would do well to plan our lessons in ways that would not infringe
upon certain student’s need to be absent for religious celebrations. As a nation, we grant a day
off for ‘Good Friday’ as a Christian holiday. However, schools do not typically cancel school for
holidays from other religions. Is this favoring one tradition over another? Or is this just taking
into consideration the traditions of the majority? If that is the case, being tolerant and
understanding in allowing students to be absent on days that are important to the traditions of
their faith is a consideration we must contemplate. Looking beyond released excusals when
connected to holidays and celebrations, we must also be considerate of certain student’s desire to
maintain traditions of their faith by praying at school.

Lastly, religious dress is not limited to minority religions, but also to the majority. For example,
when Trudy Sykes came into our class and was discussing the appropriate attire for placement
she added that all religious symbols, more specifically, crosses, be removed. Thus, is something
as subtle as a cross necklace enough of a symbol to expose and impose our religious views?
Furthermore, an ACLU court case in Michigan forced a school to change their policy after a
student took them to court in order to get the school to allow her to wear a pentagram in support
of her Wiccan beliefs (ACLU policy). However, the allowance of student expression is different
than the allowance of teacher expression. As teachers, our beliefs may have a greater effect on
our students, and we, more than anyone, must remain neutral to our student’s beliefs. This is
furthered in the interview with Cindy Sierra because she added that “there is a difference
between a student making a comment or statement about religion, and the teacher making that
same comment.” We must be more cognizant of our actions and the way they affect our students.

Questions to ponder

What do we do for students whom celebrate holidays of different faiths, or choose to not
celebrate any holidays at all, and demand the same treatment? Does it really affect others if a
student decides to take time to pray? On the other hand, how much valuable instruction do those
students miss while they take time to uphold these traditions? If you let members of one religion
take time out to pray, do you need to allow members of all religions or non-religions time for
their own spiritual practice? Is allowing different types of dress in the classroom distracting? Is
there a solution for schools with dress codes?

What does this mean?

There are no definite answers to controversial issues, such as religion in the classroom.
However, having the ability to be meta-cognitive and reflective about our choices as teachers
will help us to create the type of atmosphere in which we can foster a community of learners.
The lack of answers to these questions should not deter us from exploring the important
implications of these topics.

References

ACLU. “Michigan School Changes Policy on Honor Student Witch.” ACLU. 25 March 1999. 7

October 2008. <http://www.aclu.org/temp/pr1999/13596prs19990325.html>

"The Constitution of the United States," Amendment 1.

Clayton, A. Stafford. Religion and Schooling: A Comparative. Blaisdell Publishing Company,

1969.

Davis, Marsha. Curriculum Director at Kearsley High School.

Foster, Aric. English teacher Armada High School.

Gray, Jacob. Counselor at Armada High School.

Hundey, Jason. History teacher Armada High School.

MacMullen, Ian. Faith in Schools? Autonomy, Citizenship, and Religious Education in The
Liberal State. Princeton University Press, 2007.

McMillan, Richard C. Religion in the Public Schools. Mercer University Press, 1984.

Sebaly, A. L., Teacher Education and Religion. University of California: American Association

of Colleges for Teacher Education, 1959.

Sierra, Cindy. Curriculum Coordinator at Kearsley High School.

Thomas, R. Murray, God in the Classroom: Religion and America’s Public Schools. Wesport,

CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007.

Whitehead, John W., The Rights of Religious Persons in Public Education. Crossway Books,

1991.