There’s A Right Way To Teach About Religion In Public Schools – Be Inclusive

The Tennessee State Board of Education recently took a big step to making their state’s public education curriculum more inclusive. The state’s new social studies standards for the first time ever includes educating students about Sikhism, the world’s fifth largest religion and the only major faith not previously included in the curriculum.

Advocates are praising the move as a positive step toward combating ignorance, hatred and violence against the Sikh community. The Sikh Coalition, an ally of Americans United, had requested the inclusion of Sikhism in the curriculum last year but was denied. This year, their request was met with approval from the board.

Including Sikhism in the curriculum will improve the course by helping students understand the diversity of religion reduces the risk endorsing a particular faith, promoting a certain view or denomination, or even disparaging certain religions. 

“This is a good step forward,” Rajdeep Singh, interim managing director of programs at the Sikh Coalition, told NBC News. “In the post-9/11 environment, Sikhs have experienced school bullying, discrimination in the workplace and hate crimes because of the way they look and because of ignorance of who we are and what we believe.”  

Misunderstandings about religion can lead to bullying, discrimination and even violence. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sikhs have often been targeted for hate crimes because racists mistakenly perceive them to be Muslim because of their visible religious garb. This month marks the five-year anniversary of the Oak Creek massacre, an attack during which a white supremacist killed six and wounded multiple people at a Wisconsin Sikh temple, and unfortunately, hate crimes remain a significant concern to the Sikh community in the United States. 

In schools, approximately 67 percent of Sikh children reported that they have been targeted for bullying at their school because of their religious beliefs, according to a 2014 Sikh Coalition study.

Americans United has long opposed school-sponsored or compulsory prayer, Bible reading and other forms of worship in our public schools. But, when done right, we support objective instruction about religion. The approach must be educational, not devotional, and teachers should get proper training so that they understand the difference. Courses that cover a broad range of religions are more likely to remain academically sound and less likely to slip into school-sponsored worship.

Recently, there have been other positive steps to recognize the America’s religious diversity. In January, the U.S. Army approved beard, turban and other religious garb accommodations after a Sikh soldier sued for his right to keep his beard and turban for religious purposes. The New York Police Department in December allowed a similar accommodation and said Sikh officers can wear turbans while working. 

No one should be singled out for discrimination, bullying and hate crimes because of their religious beliefs. AU will continue to promote policies that respect the diversity of religion and oppose religious discrimination.