Constitutional concerns plague a new bill that would mandate religious education in Massachusetts public schools.
The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Christopher Fallon, would create a mandatory class in Bible and international religions for “the purposes of teaching morality and brotherhood” to high school students.
Fallon’s proposal is disturbingly scarce on details, which means it’s impossible to tell if he intends for schools to teach the Bible as literal religious truth or as literature. It’s equally difficult to tell if the Bible would be taught separately—which would place it in a unique, prioritized category—or as part of a general education course on the world’s religious traditions. But by linking “morality and brotherhood” to religious instruction, with specific reference to the Bible, his bill appears to be in serious conflict with the First Amendment.
That’s exactly what Ronal Madnick, president of AU’s Massachusetts Chapter, told the state’s Joint Committee on Education today. Americans United does not oppose classes on religious studies as long as instruction meets constitutional standards. As is, the bill does not meet these standards and requires major revision.
In his testimony, Madnick reminded state legislators that public schools cannot enforce religious morality on students. The courts have been very clear: Public schools are to be religiously neutral zones. This protects students from harassment based on their beliefs, and ensures their right to a sound education.
It’s certainly possible for schools to teach about religion in an objective manner without violating their legal responsibilities. There could, for example, be significant benefits to a curriculum that taught comparative religion for the purposes of better intercultural understanding.
That’s the approach the United Kingdom mandates for its compulsory religious education curriculum. This month, the Religious Education Council for England and Wales published a new educational framework that puts humanism and other non-religious perspectives on equal footing with religious traditions.
In practice, this means teachers will spend the same amount of time on humanism, atheism and agnosticism as they will on Christianity and other religious belief systems.
This framework has officially unlinked the concept of morality from religion. Groups like the British Humanist Association lauded this step as major progress toward inclusivity in British classrooms.
Because religious education isn’t a compulsory subject in American schools, it’s impossible to apply a domestic example to Mallon’s proposal. The UK’s approach demonstrates that religious education doesn’t have to be sectarian. It can and should be taught with inclusivity as the goal, if it’s going to be taught at all.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Fallon has approached the subject with inclusivity in mind.
As they consider his proposal, state legislators should recall the fraught cultural context surrounding religion in public schools. The topic has been a source of public tension for decades. Debates over prayer, religious clubs and creationist “science” often threaten to position classrooms on the frontlines of the Religious Right’s endless culture war.
Fallon’s proposal does nothing to dispel these cultural controversies. Instead, it provides fuel for another one, and that’s the last thing Massachusetts students need.
The bill has yet to make it out of committee. And it shouldn’t, unless Fallon and his fellow lawmakers are willing to make sure it passes constitutional muster.