How one school district found religion

Americans have never been in greater need of understanding religious differences and cultivating respect for religious freedom. The events of 9/11 transformed America's relationship with Muslims at home and abroad, a surge in immigration from Asia and Africa has increased the nation's religious diversity, and cultural conflicts between secularists and religious conservatives occur like clockwork.

So you might think the last thing school districts would want is to bring religion into the classroom. Better to play it safe, and avoid lawsuits and angry parents by limiting any mention of faith to the private sphere. But school officials in Modesto, in Northern California, decided not to play it safe. In 2000, the religiously diverse community took a risk and, in an almost unheard-of undertaking for a public school district, offered a required course on world religions and religious liberty for ninth-graders.

As college professors and social scientists studying religious freedom in the USA, we wanted to know more. Could greater discussion of religious differences actually deepen cultural divides? From October 2003 to January '05, we surveyed more than 400 Modesto students and conducted in-depth interviews with students, teachers, administrators and community leaders. We granted anonymity to students so they could speak freely, but we recorded the interviews. No prior study on American teens' views on religious liberty has scientifically surveyed such a large number of students.

To our surprise, students' respect for rights and liberties increased measurably after taking the course. Perhaps more important, the community has embraced the course as a vehicle for fostering understanding, not indoctrination.

All-American city

Modesto, population 190,000, resembles many medium-size U.S. cities. Over the past 40 years, it has made room for an array of immigrants, including Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims. Evangelical "megachurches" have sprung up alongside mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic denominations and a flourishing Jewish community. Overt incidents of religious prejudice have been rare, but the cultural divide bred mutual suspicion.

In 1997, some religious groups in Modesto battled the school over a policy of tolerance for gay and lesbian students. Out of the dispute came a meeting of the minds: A 115-member committee of community members and educators was formed to examine how to provide safe schools for all students. That meant putting an end to bullying, whether based on sexual orientation, race or ethnicity--even religion. The world religions course was one of several initiatives designed to further the "safe schools" mission.

The experiment succeeded. Our surveys indicate it increased students' respect for religious liberty as well as for basic First Amendment rights. One Russian Orthodox boy, for instance, found that the course brought him closer to his neighbors. "We have a Hindu family living across the street who pray(s) to a statue," he said. "I thought it was just plain dumb. But I notice now they had a pretty good reason."

Bringing religious beliefs out into the open increased students' respect for religious liberty for two reasons. First, students not only emerged from the course far more knowledgeable about world religions, they also were able to apply the knowledge practically. One student told us that the course gave him a greater appreciation for the religious diversity in his school. "I walk up to one of my friends I've known for years. I had no idea he was a Sikh. When I see the bracelet (worn for religious reasons), I say, 'Oh, you're a Sikh.' "

Second, students learned that major faiths shared common moral values. When we asked one student why she enjoyed studying other religions, she said: "All my life I've been a Christian, and that's really the only religion I know about. So when I take this class I see there are other religions out there, and they kind of believe in the same thing I do."

Even so, students did not become relativists or converts. They were no more likely to disbelieve the truth of their own religious traditions after taking the course.

A broad spectrum of Modesto's residents has embraced the course. Students can opt out, but only a handful have. The school board, which stands divided on other hot-button cultural issues, voted unanimously to adopt the course. Religious leaders of all faiths lent their support because they realized that something had to be done to bring peace to the schools--and that pushing religious identity undercover would create more problems than it solved.

Lessons beyond Modesto

Recent disputes over the teaching of evolution in Kansas and Dover, Pa., and over a Bible studies course in Odessa, Texas, have made national headlines. These stories leave the impression that all attempts to teach about religion in public schools--even courses far more balanced than these disputed courses--are bound to cause controversy. How did Modesto avoid this fate, and what lessons does Modesto provide for other communities?

  • Extensive training gave teachers the knowledge and enthusiasm to handle a sensitive subject.
  • An interfaith religious council reviewed the course before its implementation and paved the way for its acceptance. The council members applauded particularly the district's decision to have the course focus on objectively describing religions rather than evaluating their merits.
  • The focus on description prevented the perception that the course was biased or an attempt to indoctrinate students into a particular faith.
  • Most crucial was the school district's decision to introduce the course as part of an effort to counteract the hostility against students who were seen as different.
First Baptist Church Associate Pastor Paul Zook explained that despite the council members' disagreements, "We could find common ground (because) we all want kids to be safe."

Limiting deeply held beliefs to the private sphere breeds suspicion and tension. True religious liberty prevails not only when people feel comfortable expressing their beliefs, but also when they learn to discuss religious differences with civility and respect.

 Emile Lester is an assistant professor at The College of William and Mary. Patrick S. Roberts is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.