Teaching Religion in Public Schools

Next month I will be participating on a panel with a Jewish rabbi, a secular humanist, a Muslim, and a Buddhist. The event is part of the Interfaith Youth Core’s “Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World” conference. For most of my life I have been very comfortable in interfaith settings. In college I even majored in comparative religion and greatly appreciated my interactions with people holding other worldviews and theologies. In general I am very supportive of Christians learning about other faiths with the goal of fostering respect and understanding.But last week a judge in Quebec has pushed the value of interfaith education to a new degree, and I’m curious to hear what you think. Here’s the scoop. Last year schools in Quebec introduced a new curriculum covering “a broad range of world religions, with particular emphasis on Quebec’s religious heritage — Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and aboriginal spirituality. It is taught from Grade 1 through Grade 11.” Many Christian parents, both Catholic and Protestant, strongly disagreed with the rule requiring all students to participate in the classes. In their view religion is something best taught at home, and younger children are still having their religious identity formed. Parents argued in the courts that introducing a 7 year old to many diverse religious teachings would only confuse and possibly derail the spiritual beliefs the child’s parents are seeking to instill. The courts disagreed:

The Quebec government, which intervened in the case in support of the Des Chênes school board, argued that the course was objective and in no way limited parents’ ability to pass their religious beliefs on to their children. Teaching children about other religions is a way to promote “equality, respect and tolerance in the Quebec school system,” it said. Sébastien Lebel-Grenier, a law professor at Université de Sherbrooke, said he is not surprised that the new course survived a challenge under the Charter of Rights. “What parents were demanding was the right to ignorance, the right to protect their children from being exposed to the existence of other religions,” he said. “This right to ignorance is certainly not protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Freedom of religion does not protect the right not to know what is going on in our universe.” He said the course is aimed not at instilling religious values but at trying “to explain to these children the diversity in which we now live in Quebec.” So, school children in Quebec will be learning about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Native American religions starting in first grade.

Read more about the case here. Stories like this one make me appreciate the wisdom of James Madison-the evangelical who penned the First Amendment that erected the proverbial “wall of separation” between church and state. Unlike in Canada, I highly doubt public schools in the US will be teaching religious theology anytime soon. Still, this case raises a few interesting questions. First, how would you respond if your public school offered a class on world religions? For our purposes let’s image the class is an elective rather than mandatory. Would you want your child to enroll? Would you want them to learn about faiths and practices other than the one espoused in your home? Secondly, the case in Quebec raises questions about some efforts among conservative Christians in the US to reintroduce prayer in public schools. Like Canada the US is a pluralistic society. Laws protecting prayer in public schools would not only permit Christian prayer, but Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and prayers from numerous other traditions as well. If these conservatives win, they may regret the victory. In the end I agree with a Catholic theologian who testified in the Canadian school case. He argued that religious instruction is primarily the responsibility of parents, not schools. I want my kids to learn about other faiths and I envision this happening through travel, conversations with me, and most meaningfully through relationships with friends and family members who hold diverse beliefs. But I’m not sure I’d entrust this level of spiritual formation to the public schools. religion pencils


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