Study Finds that Teaching World Religions Increases Respect for Constitutional Freedoms

May 8, 2006

Source: Associated Baptist Press

On May 8, 2006 Associated Baptist Press reported, "A new study suggests mandatory teaching about world religions in public schools can increase teenagers' respect for religious freedom and other constitutional rights. The research, released May 8 by a Virginia-based think tank, studied 400 ninth graders who took the course in the Modesto, Calif., public schools. The district has offered the class since 2000. It is the only required course of its type in the United States, according to Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, which sponsored the study. Modesto's program offered a unique opportunity to ask, 'What does it mean to take religion very seriously in the curriculum?' Haynes said, in a press briefing marking the study's release. 'In many places, people are very afraid to touch it; many teachers and administrators are afraid that if you touch it, you're going to get into trouble'... The small city -- population around 200,000 -- is located in California's Central Valley, which is sometimes referred to as the state's 'Bible Belt.' Unlike other areas of the vast and diverse state, the Central Valley has long had a largely Protestant population, with a high percentage of conservative evangelicals. However, recent decades have seen dramatic growth in Asian immigrants to the area -- among them significant Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu communities. As part of a response to tensions that arose in the late 1990s in Modesto over reports of gay students being bullied, the district began a 'safe schools' campaign to find ways to get students to respect each other's differences. One of the ways district and community leaders suggested was by teaching more about religious differences. After consulting with educators, parents, students, lawyers and local religious leaders, the district designed the half-semester course and began teaching it in 2000. The class initially studied seven major world religions in the chronological order of their establishment. The course also included study of the First Amendment's guarantees for freedom of conscience, taking note to include that atheists and agnostics are also protected by the same guarantees."