Learning about World Religions in Public Schools: The Impact on Student Attitudes and Community Acceptance in Modesto, Calif.

Since 2000, the Modesto City school district in Modesto, Calif., has been engaged in one of the nation's most direct experiments in using the public school curriculum to promote respect for religious freedoms and diversity. While other school districts include discussions of world religions in subject matters such as history or English or provide independent elective courses on world religions, Modesto requires that all 9th grade students take an extended, independent course on world religions. Unlike many other school districts' treatments of world religions, the teaching of respect for religious freedom is an explicit and central purpose of Modesto's world religions course. Modesto's course is part of a "safe schools" policy intended to create a comfortable school environment for all students, and the first two weeks of the course deal with the United States' tradition of religious liberty.

While studying the educational effects of Modesto's course on students' views addresses the question of whether world religions courses should be implemented in public schools, an examination of Modesto's religious landscape yields valuable insight into the question of whether world religions courses can be implemented and in which communities. Modesto is home to a large evangelical Christian population, an active group of politically and culturally liberal residents, and adherents of a wide range of religions including Sikhs, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and animists. The Modesto community's reaction to the required world religions course not only provides evidence about the possibility of successfully implementing required world religions courses in communities around the nation, but allows us to assess whether our nation's ability to deal with the issue of teaching about religion in schools is as bleak as the Kansas, Dover and Odessa disputes seem to suggest.