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WASHINGTON LETTER May-12-2006 (930 words) Backgrounder and analysis. xxxn

Public schools add religion course to curriculum requirements

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- At a time when public schools are increasingly wary of any mention of religion, one California school district has found that requiring students to study world religions has been surprisingly uncontroversial and has helped smooth hostilities.

For the last six years, the Modesto public schools have required ninth graders to take a nine-week course on world religions, beginning with two weeks of study of First Amendment rights and the U.S. history of religious liberty.

When the requirement began, researchers from Stanford University in California and the College of William and Mary in Virginia started tracking students' attitudes and their understanding of different religions and of constitutional rights governing the free exercise of religion.

The researchers and two Modesto teachers involved in the project reported on it at a May 8 conference in Arlington, Va., sponsored by the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum.

Among the study's findings were that students grew to understand and respect others' religious views and they were much more likely to accept that different religions share core moral values, reported Emile Lester, an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary, and Patrick S. Roberts, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

Students' scores on tests of basic knowledge on religion nearly doubled. And their tolerance increased for members of what the researchers termed "least-liked" groups in society and for the rights of people to express religious views and to display faith symbols.

At the same time, students who went into the course thinking that one religion was "definitely right and others wrong" didn't waver in their beliefs, explained Roberts.

"Religious conservatives worried that the course might promote relativism," he said. "But the percentage of students who believed one religion was right and others weren't did not vary after the course." Anecdotes from interviews with students supported that data, he said.

The decision to require all ninth-graders to study world religions came about when Modesto Superintendent Jim Enochs tried to address the problem of homosexual students being harassed. One approach he suggested was to include "sexual orientation" in existing district policies on tolerance and respect.

Enochs' proposal sounded to some in the community like the district was endorsing homosexuality. That led to months of debate and eventually a broader plan.

As noted in the report "Learning About World Religions in Public Schools: The Impact on Student Attitudes and Community Acceptance in Modesto, Calif.," the city of 200,000 has a sizable population of evangelical Christians, as well as a growing number of people who are neither Christian nor Jewish.

"Modesto and its surrounding townships in California's Stanislaus County were routinely described to us by conservative and liberal members of the Modesto community as belonging to the 'California Bible Belt,'" the report said. It notes that of the seven school board members three "ran on platforms sympathetic to conservative Christian concerns about public schools."

A 115-member committee of community leaders and educators worked out a broader plan, which included what is thought to be the nation's first districtwide required course in world religions.

Jennie Sweeney, a history teacher at Modesto's Johansen High School and the coordinator of social science curriculum for the district, said the course is not complicated -- "we're dealing with 13-year-olds" -- but that finding a textbook was nearly impossible. World religions texts for the college level are available, but they're a rare commodity for younger students, she said.

In planning the curriculum, and later in training teachers, Sweeney and others met with religious leaders who welcomed them to their churches, temples, mosques and synagogues. They studied the First Amendment and worked up guidelines about how to teach about religion without seeming to proselytize, or to criticize religious beliefs or to paint too rosy a picture by ignoring the role of religion in darker parts of history, such as the Holocaust or the Spanish Inquisition.

Elliot Mincberg, vice president and general counsel of People for the American Way, said Modesto's experiment is "clearly a groundbreaking course." He acknowledged that People for the American Way is sometimes thought of as an opponent of religion in public schools, but noted the organization has long supported appropriate study by, for example, ensuring history texts don't ignore the role of religion.

Mincberg contrasted the Modesto course to recent high-profile conflicts about religion, such as the Dover, Pa., school district's furor over telling students in science classes that intelligent design is an alternative to evolution.

He said the Modesto program manages to avoid what he called such "straw man" debates by teaching about religions, not incorporating religious beliefs into curriculum. He and others on the panel cautioned that the course errs a bit on the side of presenting a "warm and fuzzy" picture of all the religions.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar of the First Amendment Center, who consulted with the district as it developed the curriculum, noted that devoting too much attention to religions' negative aspects might jeopardize the community support the program has enjoyed so far.

Lester told Catholic News Service after the program that, while the nine-week course allowed for only core information about a handful of major religions, even the basics helped clear up misconceptions.

"Several Modesto teachers told me that a significant number of Protestant students did not understand that Catholicism was a form of Christianity, and that even several Catholic students held this belief," he said. "These teachers said the course provides a greater understanding of the common ground shared by different forms of Christianity."


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