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Resources for Teachers

Readings on Religion in Public and Private Schools

This page will introduce you to academic research and policy debates about the role of religion in American education, with a particular focus on the pedagogic and constitutional questions surrounding the study and practice of religion in America's public schools.

The first set of texts focuses on religious studies pedagogy.  These works are not exactly teachers' guides, although some (like Diane Moore's Overcoming Religious Illiteracy, and Nord and Haynes' Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum) include very practical discussions of curriculum development and classroom teaching.  Rather, these are theoretical, philosophical, and political reflections on the importance of teaching about religious diversity.  We hope they will inspire your classroom teaching, as well as guide it.  You can also click here for two concise and downloadable teachers' guides to the study of religion in K-12 schools.

The second set of texts looks beyond the religious studies classroom, to explore questions of religious expression in public schools.  The tension between the Establishment and Free Expression clauses of the First Amendment has led to enduring debates over prayer in schools, Bible reading, creationism and "intelligent design," holiday observance, sex education, and other heated issues.  These texts offer historical, legal, and policy perspectives on these debates.

 

Discussions of K-12 Religious Studies Pedagogy:

 

Robert Jackson, Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy, Routledge, 2004.

An influential, theoretically sophisticated text by the director of the UK’s Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit.  Jackson’s work speaks, most directly, to the British field of “Religion Education,” but his insights are also relevant to American schools.  He argues that schools in multicultural societies must accommodate their students' diverse experiences of religious plurality, in order to devise approaches to teaching and learning that are fair and just to all.

 

Emile Lester, Teaching about Religions: A Democratic Approach for Public Schools, University of Michigan Press, 2011.

This provocative and timely book challenges Americans to rethink what it means to take both democracy and religious freedom seriously in public education.  Focusing on the Modesto, CA school district's required course in World Religions, Lester argues that our public schools must include all voices in ways that prepare American citizens to engage one another with civility and respect.

 

Diane Moore, Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultur­al Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Written by a leading theorist and proponent of secondary school religious studies pedagogy, this important work shows how a cultural studies approach to the study of religion can invigorate our classrooms, enhance democratic discourse, and above all combat the widespread religious illiteracy that fuels our culture wars and promotes both religious and racial bigotry.

 

Warren Nord, Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma, The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

While our public schools and universities must not promote religious beliefs or practices, this seminal text argues — on ethical, political, and constitutional grounds — that public school students must learn about religion as a way of understanding the human experience.  Nord's approach to these issues works to transcend the divide between religious conservatives who would restore religious practices to public education and secular liberals for whom religion is anathema to public education.

 

Warren Nord, Does God Make a Difference?  Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities, Oxford University Press, 2010.

In his latest work, Nord argues that public schools and universities leave the vast majority of students religiously illiterate.  Such education, he argues, is not religiously neutral -- indeed it borders on an unconstitutional form of secular indoctrination when measured against the requirements of a good liberal education and the demands of critical thinking.

 

Warren Nord and Charles Haynes, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum, Association for Supervision and Curric­ulum De­velopment and the First Amend­ment Center, 1998.

Nord and Haynes chart a middle course in debates over religion and public education -- one that has helped establish an enduring consensus among educational and religious leaders. While it is not permissible for public schools to promote religion, it is not permissible to make them "religion-free" zones either.  Our public schools must take religion seriously as an academic subject.  The authors flesh out their central arguments through concrete, practical discussions of the place of religion in social studies, literature, the arts, and other fields.

 

Farideh Salili and Rumjahn Hoosain (eds.), Religion in Multicultural Education, Information Age Publishing, 2006.

The field of multicultural education has developed invaluable insights into race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and other forms of collective identity and community.  But it has all too often overlooked religion.  This collection of essays explores a range of approaches to teaching about religious identity and difference, and thus begins to fill an important gap in contemporary discussions of multiculturalism.

 

Linda K. Wertheimer, Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance.  Beacon Press, 2015

A powerful, and often troubling, account of recent conflicts surrounding religious diversity education -- and especially education about Islam -- in U.S. public schools.  Wertheimer captures the voices and perspectives of students, teachers, parents, community members, and political advocates, as they struggle to define appropriate pedagogies for the study of religion in our deeply divided society.

 

 

Broader Policy Debates about Religion in Public Schools:
 

 

Joan DelFattore, The Fourth R: Conflicts Over Religion in America’s Public Schools, Yale University Press, 2004.

DelFattore traces our school-prayer battles from the early 1800s -- when children were beaten or expelled for refusing to read the King James Bible -- to current disputes over prayer at public-school football games. Underlying these debates, she argues, is a struggle to balance two of the most fundamental tenets of American democracy: majority rule and individual rights.

 

James Fraser, Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America, Saint Martin’s Press, 1999.

Prayer in the classroom, the teaching of creationism, representations of sexuality, and efforts to teach morality -- these are just a few of the issues that have led to heated debates over the role of religion in public education.  By looking at these difficult questions, Fraser attempts to reconcile private faith and public schooling in a diverse, multicultural society.

 

Kent Greenawalt, Does God Belong in Public Schools?, Princeton University Press, 2007.

In this book, one of America's leading constitutional scholars asks what role religion ought to play in our public schools. Greenawalt explores some of the most divisive issues in contemporary educational debates, including teaching about the origins of life, sex education, and when -- or whether -- students can opt out of instructional activities for religious reasons.

 

Charles Haynes and Oliver Thomas (eds.), Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools, The First Amendment Center, 2001.

This invaluable handbook provides a wide range of information and perspectives on religious expression and practices in schools, as well as broader discussions of religious liberty in American public life, analyses of relevant Supreme Court rulings, and much more.  It also includes practical resources for students, teachers, and parents, to help them navigate what is often a complex, ambiguous terrain.

 

Steven Jones and Eric Sheffield (eds), The Role of Religion in 21st Century Public Schools, Peter Lang Publishing, 2009.

This collection's origins lie in the 2007 “Critical Questions in Education” conference at Missouri State University.  The essays cover a broad range of topics, including timeless philosophical reflections on the place of religion in education, and timely debates over prayer in the public schools.