Talking Religion in the Classroom

“I thought we weren’t supposed to talk about religion in school?”  A high school Principal in New York City recently asked me this question at an education fair in Harlem.  Before this conversation, I assumed most educators would recognize the difference between proselytizing and talking about religion in regards to culture and history. I was misinformed.

It can be difficult to talk about religion in your classroom but to avoid the topic all together seems problematic.  How does a World Civilization teacher talk about history while not mentioning religion?  How do you discuss the Pyramids without talking about Egyptian spiritual practices? Or Greek mythology?  In these cases, you are, in fact, talking about religion in the classroom. You are not, however, asking your students to subscribe to any religious doctrine.

Yes, schools are responsible to separate church and state. However, the ever changing landscape of the American classroom means teachers are obliged to represent every one of their students.  Religiosity, or lack there of, is a significant component of identity and culture for most students.  By evading the topic of religion, teachers might ignore an opportunity to teach their class about noteworthy part of the school community.  The Minnesota Independent School District 196 devised guidelines on how to appropriately approach religion in the classroom. The list below shows strategies to consider, not rules.

  1. Schools may use religious books as source books in teaching about religions.
  2. School should recognize the multiplicity of explanations related to human origins in their appropriate curricular place.
  3. A student has the right to pray at any appropriate time.
  4. School may offer objective instruction about religion as literature and history and religion’s role in the story of civilization.
  5. Students are free to recite such documents as the Declaration of Independence, which contain references to God.
  6. Students may sing the national anthem and other patriotic songs that contain assertions of faith in God.
  7. Rhetorical or personal references in religious faith in connection with patriotic or ceremonial occasions are permissible.
  8. Schools may excuse a student from engaging in an activity that offends that student’s religious beliefs or conscience.
  9. Classroom instruction, where its content is in the area of religious Holy Days or celebrations, should be carefully tied to educational objectives.  These educational objectives should be specified in writing and consistent with the overall curriculum of the school.
  10. The school calendar, vacations and holidays may be scheduled to permit observances of religious Holy Days.  When school is scheduled on a religious Holy Day, students shall be excused for observance of the Holy Day upon the request of their parents.