It is typically the case that in advising my fellow educators about accommodating the religious practices of Muslims, or on how to create mirrors for their Muslim students by bringing in books to their teaching that feature Muslim characters or say something about the history of Muslim civilization, I am often asked about where the lines are drawn when it comes to “teaching religion in schools.”
Of course, the school can not give favoritism to or endorse any religion as is well established by the first amendment of the constitution. Yet, it is not the case that schools are places where it is suppose to be pretended that religions and religious identities do not exist, nor is it disallowed, or even discouraged, to examine religion’s role across academic fields or in student identities when there is a secular purpose in doing so.
Furthermore, the reality is that sensitivity about such concerns is only triggered in teachers when we are talking about Muslims and Islam in particular; and this simply has to do with the fact that there is a social stigma associated with Muslims and Islam in the United States. For example, I have had such concerns expressed to me when recommending that teacher’s include Fawzia Gilani’s Cinderella: An Islamic Tale in a unit with other Cinderella stories whose focus is on cross-cultural comparative literature. After all the book, a third person narration, shows and talks about Cinderella reading the Qur’an and praying and remembering God. She is indeed a religious character and that is demonstrated in the text. Are we allowed to show our kids a book with such a religious character? This is essentially what the question comes down to. But an important illustration is drawn when we consider that this question does not arise if you are talking about other texts that are commonly read in our schools and have been for a long time, yet relate to Christianity, which is generally more familiar to the background of most public school educators in the United States.
Laura Ingalls Wilder is a world-renowned author, and rightfully so. Her literature, with their vivid illustrations of life in the pioneer days are absolute relics, especially for Minnesotans and others in the Midwest. Her books give the reader an invaluable window into the life experience of an era gone by and is written in a prose that is perfect for emerging young readers of novels. Her books have been, and should continue to be, used in classrooms and school libraries for a long time.
Have you ever heard of someone bringing up concerns about the separation between church and state when the following passages of Little House in the Big Woods are read or encountered by students:
On page 87…
"Supper was solemn. After supper, Grandpa's father read aloud a chapter of the Bible, while everyone sat straight and still in his chair. Then they all knelt down, and their father said a long prayer. “
Or on page 97…
“Laura liked best to look at the pictures in the big Bible, with its paper covers. Best of all was the picture of Adam naming the animals. Adam sat on a rock, and all the animals and birds, big and little, were gathered around him anxiously waiting to be told what kind of animals they were. Adam looked so comfortable. He did not have to be careful to keep his clothes clean, because he had no clothes on. He wore only a skin around his middle. 'Did Adam have good clothes to wear on Sundays?' Laura asked Ma. 'No,' Ma said. 'Poor Adam, all he had to wear was skins.'”
Or on page 115…
“Then Ma said it was bedtime. She helped Laura and Mary undress and button up their red flannel nightgowns. They knelt down by the trundle bed and said their prayers. 'Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.'"
And these passage come after whole chapters devoted to the celebration of Christmas (titled ‘Christmas’) and another chapter about the solemness observed on Sundays (titled ’Sundays’).
The reality is that you do not hear about teachers having concerns over first amendment issues in school when reading Little House in the Big Woods or even worrying about the content creating discomfort for students who perhaps do not celebrate Christmas, read the Bible, nor pray kneeling down by their beds. Rather they see it as perfectly normal, and indeed, to learn about life and literature of the pioneer days but to do so with religious practice being completely whitewashed from the portrayals would be dishonest and a disservice to the education of students.
So the books that Abraham Education Services recommends that feature Muslims are generally third person narrations or informational texts that serve the secular purposes of developing literary skills, cross-cultural understanding, and historical examination.
In the Supreme Court case Abington v. Schempp (1963) which established that public schools may not compel students to read the Bible "without comment" associate justice Tom Clark wrote in the majority opinion:
“[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
For more information about first amendment issues in public schools pertaining to both the establishment clause and religious freedom please read the following excellent resources from other organizations.
- From the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):
Joint Statement on Current Law on Religion in the Public Schools
- From The First Amendment Center:
A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools
- From Charles Haynes of the Newseum Institute and published by the American Bar Association:
See page 17 in this publication "Muslim Students’ Needs in Public Schools "
- From the National Coalition Against Censorship, pertaining to current controversies that have broken out about public school textbooks teaching about the tenets of Islam (which, by the way, is not something Abraham Educational Services concerns itself in advocating for, our goals are to provide resources for teaches to bring mirrors for Muslim students into their curriculum, to build better relationships with their Muslims students, and help accommodate the religious practice of Muslims in school in a way that optimizes the educational experience. But since we know people will connect the work of our organization with this issue regardless, we refer to this resource on the issue).
Islam in the Classroom: Teaching About Religion is Not Religious Indoctrination