Does Religion Belong in MA Public Schools?
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
A recent report published by Gateway to a Better Education entitled “The Bible in State Academic Standards” analyzed the various laws, regulations, and academic standards of each state, calling for more opportunities for Christianity to be taught in public schools.
“We have found over the years that a lot of people are unaware of their states’ academic standards regarding the teachings of Christianity,” said Eric Buehrer, Founder and President of Gateways to a Better Education. “When it comes to Christianity, there is an assumption that you can’t teach about those subjects. When looking into the state academic standards however, results show that in some cases that teachings of Christianity or the Bible are not only recommended, but are expected in some cases.”
The report highlights Massachusetts as one of five states (including D.C.) that has detailed academic standards regarding the Bible, Christianity, Judaism and other religious concepts. The report also says that states with academic standards that are unclear involving religion and Christianity should look to Massachusetts and the other four states for guidance.
Religion as a Part of History
It may be easy to argue that religion has no place in a public classroom with the growing diversity of the nation, but many forget the important role that religion has had throughout history.
Religion has been a driving force throughout many nations’ histories and can be localized to New England and even Massachusetts through the Colonial Era where religion was extremely prevalent. According to the academic standards of Massachusetts, seventh graders in public schools are expected to:
“Describe the origins of Christianity and its central features. A. Monotheism; B. the belief in Jesus as the Messiah and God’s son who redeemed humans from sin; C. the concept of salvation; D. belief in the Old and New Testament; E. the lives and teachings of Jesus and Saint Paul.”
Buehrer points to passages from Massachusetts’ academic standards like the one above, saying that the schools have plenty of opportunities to infuse Christianity and the Bible into day-to-day lesson plans.
The report was designed to be a discussion point and a building block to stop teachers from worrying about concepts like religious tolerance and separation of church and state and also to point out in what ways teachers are allowed to weave Christianity in their lesson plans.
Although only advocating for Christianity because of the organization’s religious beliefs, Buehrer says that religion in general is something that has a place in the classroom as long as it is being paired with a lesson plan and not being openly preached about.
“The overall message of this report is that religion is not a topic that should be off limits,” said Burhrer. “We have also made it a point to say that teaching religion and teaching about religion are two different things. Religion in the classroom is not something that should appeal to belief; it should be there so that students should understand its relevance to history.”
Organizations like Greater Worcester Humanists – who according to their website welcome all freethinkers, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, and secularists – agree with the statement made by Buehrer, saying that religion is not something that should be outright outlawed in public schools.
Provided that teachers stay within the various laws and academics standards of their respective state, Greater Worcester Humanists not only accept teaching various religions in public schools, but they recommend it.
“We are all for learning about religion in the classroom, provided that it is taught objectively,” said David Niose, a spokesperson for Greater Worcester Humanists. “All Americans should know Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and other world views. Whether religion should or should not be taught in public classrooms is an objective educational question.”
Creating Problems That Aren’t There
“Teaching the basics about Christianity is not a problem,” said Niose. “If you are teaching something like that then you are providing basic teachings; you aren’t preaching or proselytizing. If you went into a classroom and taught that Jesus was the son of God or that the Trinity is something that is real, then that becomes advocating for a religion which is a whole different issue.”
Niose says that issues that rise from integrating religion into public classrooms have the potential to be manufactured, meaning that if a person or organization feels that their religion isn’t being represented properly, then they may call certain “issues” to attention that may not really be there.
“What I find is that when you really look at it, some of these issues are manufactured controversies,” said Niose. “Sometimes people feel that their rights are being taken from them, but it all comes down to a simple understanding of what the First Amendment is. A lot of people feel that when they are religious, there are impossible barriers that are put in place, but it all comes down to understanding your rights as an American.”
Tracy Novick, a member of the Worcester School Committee is another who agrees that there is a potential for manufactured controversies and misconceptions to be made in the integration of religion in the public school districts in Massachusetts. Previously being a teacher herself, Novick says that certain aspects of religion are already present in the classroom.
“Gateway to a Better Education is a Christian organization so I would tend to question the balanced nature of the source of the report,” said Novick. “I was previously a history and English teacher so I understand fully that the historical contributions of religion are acceptable. My test is always whether these reports are advocating for other religions or just their own.”
Novick believes that other than religion providing historical context, the topic warrants little attention in public schools. With Worcester trying to cater to a diverse group of school children, diversity and tolerance are things that are advocated for in the various public schools.
“I think that faith specifically or any attempt in which people try to weigh in on their personal beliefs is where they get into trouble,” said Novick. Public schools in Worcester are very clear in teaching to everyone. I don’t think that public schools have any business teaching religion to students; religion just isn’t something that has a distinct place in the public school curriculum.”
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