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The Park51 mosque continues to be the focus of most mainstream media outlets, but last week, it was a controversy around a smaller mosque located in Roxbury, Massachusetts, that truly illustrated an important point about the role of religion in America. The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center became the subject of fierce local debate when a video showed that several Wellesley Middle School students had bowed their heads and prayed while on a field trip at the mosque. There was immediate outrage in the surrounding community, and many invoked “separation of church and state” to suggest that the school should not have been permitted to take children to a mosque at all. While it seems clear that students shouldn’t have been allowed to participate in a religious prayer ceremony while on a school field trip, the controversy more broadly illustrates Americans’ irrational fears about acknowledging religion in the classroom.
The Supreme Court has been clear about a crucial distinction between “the teaching of religion,” which would violate First Amendment rights by indoctrinating children, and “teaching about religion,” which would not violate rights but objectively address issues of historical and cultural significance in a secular context. This distinction acknowledges religion’s historical importance and recognizes that it forms an essential component of any complete education. Religion has been cited as a motivation for crucial historical occurrences, as a cause of war, as a factor in the rise and fall of cultures; events from the Inquisition to the Crusades cannot be comprehended apart from an understanding of comparative religions and the beliefs behind each.
More significantly, educating children in the beliefs of the major world religions broadens their worldviews, expands their cultural knowledge, and promotes understanding of diverse perspectives—the fundamental underpinnings of a successful and open-minded education. As the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset eloquently expressed it, “Education presumably broadens men’s outlooks, enables them to understand the need for norms of tolerance, [and] restrains them from adhering to extremist and monistic doctrines.” Toleration cannot be conveyed unless students are taught about the religions to which their tolerance must be extended, as well as the beliefs those religions hold.
In this regard, the class at Wellesley Middle School seems exemplary. Entitled “Enduring Beliefs in the World Today,” it studies Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism and includes accompanying trips to a mosque, a gospel music show, and a synagogue, as well as a meeting with Hindu representatives. Schools in Modesto, California, have successfully implemented a similar program, requiring a religion class for all high school students. For most, such classes probably seem uncontroversial, but the vitriolic outcry against the trip to the mosque demonstrates that not all Americans are comfortable with an acknowledgement of world religions in our public schools.
This argument for teaching about religion in the classroom necessarily extends further. It also means that courses teaching the Bible, and possibly other religious texts, should be included in public school curricula. The Bible has influenced not only the history, but also the language and rhetoric, that has defined America’s development; like world religion classes, it therefore deserves a place in the nation’s classrooms. Nonetheless, courses on the Bible are open to one objection not available to those who protest classes on comparative religion: Some, like lawyer Wendy Kaminer, have argued that teaching the Bible “outside of close conjunction with other religions” amounts to preferential treatment of the text and an abandonment of government neutrality.
However, different religions have had disproportionate influences on world history, and teachings about these religions will naturally reflect their role in the period of time or topic under consideration. Textbooks need not be tailored to devote equal pages to all religious beliefs, as was suggested by members of the Texas State Board of Education who cited a “pro-Islamic” bias in current teaching tools. History cannot be altered to account for concerns about political correctness. The Bible deserves to be taught in our classrooms, whether it be in a class solely devoted to the biblical text or in one that analyzes a broader array of religious documents.
In the case at hand, however, participating in a prayer ceremony in a mosque goes beyond teaching students about religion. Teachers should have prevented the students from taking part in the ceremony, not least because these middle schoolers may not have known exactly what they were doing and their parents might not have approved of their actions. Allowing students to participate in a religious ceremony clearly crosses the line between “teaching about religion” and “teaching religion.” The goal of the field trip was not to teach students how to pray, but to teach them how others pray.
Although students should have been prevented from engaging in the prayer ceremony, the incident also demonstrates Americans’ unfounded fears of any interaction between religion and education. Acknowledging religion’s role in shaping world history and cultures is an essential function—even a duty—of America’s educators. In this sense, taking students to a mosque offers them an invaluable opportunity to experience another religion’s place of worship. More schools should be taking advantage of similar opportunities in their own communities, breaking down what Thomas Jefferson referred to as the “wall of separation between church and state." This wall is constructed only out of irrationality and intolerance for the diverse world faiths that could be discussed in its absence.
Peter M. Bozzo ’12 is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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