Online NewsHour: Teaching Religion
Kusala): Then you have the human world, that's where we are.
ANN BOWSER: This comparative religion class at a suburban
Los Angeles public high school recently had a lesson on Buddhism
taught by a monk.
Kusala): So what did the Buddha talk about? He talked about
why we suffer. He talked about how hard it is to be a human
being. He said that that we are born, he said we get sick,
he said that we get old, he said we die, and he said there's
nothing we can do about it. Isn't that a bummer?
Other people have been persecuted. It's not just the Puritans
that were mean about religion sometimes.
ANN BOWSER: 400 miles away, in Northern California, this fifth-grade
social studies class was also learning about religion and
its role in the founding of America.
You're right because there was a law that had you to belong
to the Church of England. You couldn't choose to be another
religion at that time.
ANN BOWSER: Similar scenes played out every day in public
schools all over California because the state is one of the
few that requires religion be taught as part of the curriculum.
Now the federal government has opened the door for other states
to follow. In December, for the first time, the Department
of Education sent new guidelines for teaching religion to
every public school in the country. The guidelines came after
years of talks between religious and educational organizations
with differing points of view, but all 21 of those groups
now have signed off.
HAYNES, Freedom Forum: The Christian Coalition supports this
statement, but so does people for the American way.
ANN BOWSER: Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center helped
write the new guidelines. He is a religious scholar who conducts
seminars like this one for teachers and administrators on
how to teach religion in public schools. He thinks the 1962
decision forbidding government-led prayer in public schools
is one of the most misunderstood in the Supreme Court's history.
HAYNES: The court was trying to say that there is a place
for religion in the public schools, but it must be an academic
place in the curriculum. Just as we learn about all kinds
of things in history, we also have to learn about religion,
and the court said that's what a good education should be.
But that part of the court's decision wasn't emphasized and
looked at. In other words, we spent so much time fighting
about what we can't do in public schools, we forgot to consider
what we can do.
ANN BOWSER: Under the new guidelines, these are some of the
things public schools can do: They may teach about religion;
they may actively teach civic values and morals; they may
allow students to express their beliefs in homework, artwork,
and other written and oral assignments. They may also allow
students to display religious messages on clothing, and participate
in before- or after-school events with religious content like
this meeting of the Muslim Club. But after years of fearing
reprisals for even mentioning religion in school, some teachers
are still nervous. On the day we visited Shira Lubliner's
class at Ayers Elementary School in Concord, California, she
was teaching an American History unit on the Puritans' persecution
of the Quakers in the 1600's.
LUBLINER, Elementary School Teacher: Who's doing the whipping?
LUBLINER: Now isn't this odd? The same people who left England
for religious freedom, when they get to New England, they
turn around and don't let anyone else have any religious freedom.
Isn't that a strange thing? So in order to take care of that,
have you a big problem here because if one group of people
tries to make everybody else do it their way like the Puritans
did, it doesn't work very well. So we have a wall, and that
wall between religion and liberty is a very, very important
wall. It's called the First Amendment.
ANN BOWSER: Throughout the lesson Lubliner says she tried
to be careful not to support any particular religious point
of view, but she's troubled. Even with new rules, she thinks
there's still too much room for abuse. In fact, Lubliner last
year complained when her son's fourth-grade teacher read the
Christmas Story from the Bible to the class.
LUBLINER: I think that the major problem that we have in California
is that there's-- well, in the country altogether-- is that
there's too much gray area, and I think that as long as we've
got a lot of gray area, there are going to be a lot of problems,
and people are going to have a lot of disagreements. So, for
example, teaching about religion-- well, what exactly does
that mean? And, you know, my son's teacher I felt crossed
the line. In teaching about religion, when you're reading
Holy Scriptures, that becomes advocacy, in my opinion. But
to others that's-- to her, clearly-- it was teaching about
Christmas. So how we define these things needs to be spelled
out much more clearly.
ANN BOWSER: First Amendment expert Haynes says religious texts
can be taught objectively and fairly.
HAYNES: It can come up when you're teaching world history
or when you're teaching American History and the role the
Bible has played, and certainly that's one way it naturally
comes up. Other scriptures might come up as well. When you're
studying India, you're going to study some of the Hindu texts
and so forth. The other way is to have an elective in religious
studies. A Bible elective is fully... Is permissible and may
be constitutional if it's done properly.
High School Teacher: Society, individual progress...
ANN BOWSER: Jim Maechling has been teaching elective classes
in comparative religion at Peninsula High School in Palos
Verdes for 30 years. The kids like the give and take of the
class and the ability to speak freely about their views on
What about the whole issue of religion itself-- has it helped
humanity. Helped society?
Religion has not only helped, but also shown that it can preserve
STUDENT: But on the other hand, religion gives people excuse
not to have to think for themselves. They can just take this
book of rules and go, okay. That's good. I'll do that. And
so then they don't have to figure out anything for themselves.
That's a serious downfall of religion.
When you hear somebody else's idea and it may be 180 (degrees)
from yours, you argue, you get a little of theirs, they get
a little of yours, and there's a struggle in your mind for
truth, and ultimately that's how you learn to make your own.
That's how you learn to make your own resolutions of truth.
ANN BOWSER: Maechling thinks he's teaching along tried and
true constitutional lines.
It's a school; it's not a church. I don't preach, but I really
try to teach values. And to me, any society without values
is in big trouble, and I think many religions are saying the
same thing, but the point is, yes, bring religion into the
schools, but let them all in. Either that or we've got...
Or let's keep what we've got, and is everybody real happy
with that? I don't think so. I think people want to talk about
ANN BOWSER: The students, who come from many different religions,
are Maechling's biggest fans.
STUDENT: I think having a class like this really helps, especially
when you're on a campus like ours. It just... You see someone,
and they might be wearing, like, a veil, and you don't just
say, "oh, that person's, you know, that person comes from
the East." You know why they do it, and you understand why
is it that they have the beliefs that they do.
The class, I think, it's incredible. It opens your mind to
so many... Presuming... Like, for a while, like, I was, I
was more agnostic, and this was before the class. You know,
I had a more narrow view of, you know, "this person's fundamentalist
Christian-- oh, they're bad people." But now, now my mind's
open. I still don't agree with what they say, but I'm more
tolerant of what they believe.
ANN BOWSER: And for some students, the course has opened their
mind to other faiths. Lindsay Fox is a 17-year-old senior
who has been raised Roman Catholic.
FOX, High School Student: Maybe I'll end up deciding that
I believe in Catholicism, and that's the religion for me and
it has been all along, and maybe I'll find a different religion
that I can more identify with myself and strongly, like, have
my own faith in it.
FOX, Parent: See our way to a brighter day tomorrow.
ANN BOWSER: Lindsay's father, Gerry Fox, believes Maechling's
class is a good thing in spite of the Doubts it has raised
in his daughter's mind.
FOX: Almost every religion has a core set of values, and I
think with some of the problems we're seeing in public high
schools today, I think everyone's in agreement that there
probably needs to be more of that. So I don't have a problem
with that, I rely don't.
Kusala): I'll ring the bell three times to start. And then
I'll ring the bell three times to end, okay?
ANN BOWSER: Lindsay says one of the highlights of Maechling's
class is the appearance of guest speakers who teach the kids
about various religious practices and, here, meditation. First
Amendment Center Director Haynes says the meditation class
shows how even experienced teachers need guidance on how to
teach religion properly.
HAYNES: I think that's inappropriate. We wouldn't want the
students to role-play the mass, something close to home for
many Americans, or to role-play any number of sacred moments.
ANN BOWSER: Communion?
HAYNES: Or communion. These things are sacred to people. Just
so, even if a Buddhist monk says its all right, it's still
a sacred activity, and it involves kids in a religion not
their own, and it risks violating their religious liberty
rights. It also risks trivializing the faith that's being
ANN BOWSER: Maechling disagrees. He says teaching yoga and
meditation are secular activities.
This project is not a religion project. It's not even a religious
liberty project. At core, as I think you've heard it's a civics
ANN BOWSER: Haynes says he hopes the first amendment center
will be able to expand its training seminars around the country
and clarify what is and is not appropriate to teach.
This live "News Hour Forum" (transcript) occurred
a few days after the broadcast and included Jim Maechling
and Charles Haynes.
Online NewsHour Forum: Teaching religion
NewsHour: Teaching Religion- April 21,