Religious Expression in the College Classroom

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So reads the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which adherents defend with great rigor. But are all of the clauses equally protected? In recent years, the law protecting religious freedom has been interpreted to mean that an individual’s religious views have no place in our country’s government-supported classrooms. The logic behind this interpretation stems from the view that permitting students to express, endorse, or otherwise acknowledge religious views in an educational setting will infringe on the rights of those who do not share the same beliefs, and thus interfere with the logical processes associated with meaningful learning.

In December 1999, the Proceedings before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights scheduled a series of hearings in New York, Washington D.C., and Seattle to examine the status of religion in school. After conducting interviews and hearing testimony, the Commission took a stand to support the right of students “to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion free from discrimination, [which] does not, however, include the right to have a captive audience listen to their religious expressions, or to compel others to participate” (Proceedings 3).

These findings were consistent with President Clinton’s 1997 “Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace” as well as the 1998 “Statement of Principles on Religious Expression in Public Schools” prepared by Richard Riley, Secretary of Education. The “Principles” were expanded in 1999 and sent to state superintendents of instruction. In addition the document was sent to approximately 300 to 400 national religious leaders, and published in the Community
Update, the Department of Education’s newsletter with a circulation of 250,000.

Still, many educators are unaware that it is illegal to deny students the right to express their religious beliefs in a classroom setting. During the Civil Rights Commission’s review, diverse perspectives from several legal and religious leaders proved this point. Marc D. Stern of the American Jewish Congress pointed out that forbidding in-class religious expression “merely reflects school officials’ ignorance of the law” (Proceedings 5). It became obvious from his remarks and those of others that more information about the rights and responsibilities of religious expression in academic settings needs to be shared with educators across the country.

Kevin Hasson of the Becket Fund agreed that many educational institutions fail to provide an environment where religious expression is tolerated, let alone invited or embraced. He warned that “when public schools systematically eliminate religion from all facets of public school life, they teach children their religious impulses are unimportant” (Proceedings 8). Hisassertion supports the notion that students are entitled to an academic environment where they feel comfortable expressing views on all subjects, religion included. When the right to express personal viewpoints is compromised by an instructor’s or other students’ intolerant or scornful attitudes, students may feel their views are unworthy of sharing with others, resulting in their reserving comments on other topics as well.

Religious Expression as a Medium for Diversity

In denying our students the right of religious expression in the academic classroom, we also prevent them from developing cultural awareness of and appreciation for diverse world views. A few years ago in my freshman composition class, we viewed an episode of Picket Fences, a popular weekly television program, which focused on religious diversity. A Jewish teacher was called to account for allegedly proselytizing Christian students through classroom discussions. Another thread in that episode featured
a Jehovah Witness husband who prevented his dying wife from receiving medicaltreatment. Like the Jewish teacher, the Jehovah Witness’ religious beliefs were challenged by authorities. While the episode did not try to explain all tenets of either faith, it brought to light a better understanding of both. After viewing this episode, my
students asked questions about differences among these faiths and others, such as Catholicism and Protestantism. Quickly I highlighted main points of each. One student implied that certain practices were obsolete and probably meaningless; another heatedly retorted, and for about ten minutes I moderated the debate. Then I closed the discussion by pointing to their dialogue as an example of global religious conflict in places like Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Students commented that the debate had been enlightening. But when course evaluations included comments by two of my twenty students questioning the appropriateness of the religious debate in a college writing class, their comments were noted by faculty peers during my reappointment hearing (never mind the eighteen students who had enjoyed the exchange-two of whom had recommended a pay raise!) and I was advised to avoid religious issues in the future.

But should we avoid such issues? Public classrooms are not the forums in which to conduct public worship. Yet where else can students exchange ideas about spiritual beliefs and the role of morality but in the seats of learning where trained instructors can facilitate the quest for personal as well as academic truth? Like other controversial or personal beliefs, religious expression merits protection as a medium of intellectual exchange in the classrooms of higher education today. If we forbid students from expressing views of this nature, where will the censorship end? While such discussion needs to be moderated and guided, it nevertheless should be guaranteed a suitable place in discourse about the role of belief or value systems in a variety of classroom contexts.

Academic Freedom and Spiritual Beliefs

Academic freedom remains free only so long as educators are willing to engage in discussion about all facets of human existence. Silencing or shaming students who bring spiritual beliefs to college only leads to repression. When we force students to suppress
their spiritual beliefs instead of encouraging discussion within an appropriate framework, we deny them access to all their experiential capability across multiple threads of human existence.

But higher education still lags in protecting this right. Since the 1960s when religious expression within public classrooms was challenged and then banned by well-meaning civil liberties advocacy groups, God in most forms has been barred from public education except for a few paragraphs in history or philosophy texts. In separating church and state, lobbyists ensured that instructors would no longer teach the Golden Rule or expect students to practice the Ten Commandments. Certainly American students learn little about the beliefs and practices of non-Christian faiths like Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism, except for the occasional textbook commentary-and then, such information sometimes is inaccurately reported. The gap left by the exile of spiritual structure from decades past has been filled by moral relativism in today’s schools.

Sensing a need for clarification, the U.S. government recently has taken steps to make educators and students aware of their right to religious expression in academic institutions. Perhaps we are beginning to realize that those with religious beliefs, as much as anyone else, have the right to exercise those beliefs within the classroom instead of adopting a faith-free persona while on campus. Some disciplines firmly reject the expression of spiritual views on campus. For example, biology students routinely are taught that evolution is the only “correct” way to view human development, despite gaps in evolutionary theory that science cannot explain. Some biology instructors flunk students who choose to recount the creationist theory, using geophysical principles, to explain the world’s genesis. Thus, academicians propound a belief in evolution to override other beliefs, despite growing doubts about its validity.

In a literature course, a colleague teaching third-year American literature included Puritan texts during the first two weeks of the semester. Virtually all early American textbooks include this literature as the backbone of the canon. One of the students
(among twenty-one others) complained in the course evaluation about reading the Puritan texts. During the instructor’s reappointment hearing, she was admonished by the
retention committee for “proselytizing” her class even though she had made no statements concerning the validity of the Puritans’ belief system or personally endorsed it in any way. At some liberal arts campuses, instructors of literature and values courses may teach the Bible as literature in courses like “Wisdom Literature,” the letters of St. Paul, or Hebrew mysticism. Yet by and large, Americans have become paranoid about the role of religious expression on mainstream campuses. Ironically, I learned more about conventional Christianity from Chinese Communists to whom I was teaching ESL a few years ago than from American students I have taught over the past twenty years.

Loss of Religious Values and Self-Examination

As many teachers will confirm, students of all ages today know very little about any kind of religious values, whether it be America’s Judeo-Christian roots or other world faiths. Instead, many students receive a generalized concept of religion-often portrayed in a negative light-when teachers or texts address the topic at all. As a result,catastrophic events like the Holocaust are not real for them. They do not appreciate the cultural effects of movements like Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, or events like the Crusades or the Inquisition. Our students experience only a token exposure to faith-basedbelief systems, with few opportunities for detailed exploration or analysis.

Despite professorial claims of being open-minded and fostering freedom of speech, we deny students the opportunity to examine their own religious beliefs and those of others in a neutral, fact-centered environment. Instead, we have relegated religion to the murky underworld of myth and superstition. Without faith, our students have no solid spiritual foundation to cling to when assaulted by waves of oppression. They cling to a new idea today and discard it for another tomorrow as they bob about in a sea of

For decades we have lectured against the repressive practices of communism and socialism, but current American teaching practices likewise repel or discourage discourse about global faiths, allowing half-truths to proliferate. Dr. Mohammad A. Nimer, Research Director with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), reports that misunderstanding of Islam is prevalent. He cited the example of a popular textbook view of Islam asserting that the Prophet Mohammed “hated Christians and Jews, poets and
painters, and everyone who criticized him.” Protest from Moslem parents and activists forced Simon and Schuster to recall the text (Proceedings 60) . Like Marxists, we have raised a generation of students to believe in nothing but themselves and to discard faith-based ideologies as bearing little relationship to the business of education. Yet Lizabeth

A. Rand asserts in her February 2001 article in CollegeComposition and Communication that “spiritual identity may be the primary kind of selfhood more than a few of [our students] draw upon in making meaning of their lives and the world around them” (Rand

But in admitting religious views to academic debate, do we run the risk of engaging exploitative fundamentalism? Rand quotes Christian scholar James Calvin Schapp’s view of the Christian identifications sometimes encountered on campus:
. . . religion should be considered a difference along with identity
markers such as race and sexual orientation: Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½In some ways . . . being a Christian writer presents internal challenges no different from those facing a gay novelist or a native American poet, since each of us has to choose a primary identity to hold with the most spirited conviction.’ (Rand 351)

In removing religious expression from our classrooms, the separation of church and state becomes unbalanced, and is weighted more on the state’s side. Frank D. Walters writes of
this in his November 1995 College English article, “Every writing classroom necessarily has a political significance. As we contemplate strategies and goals in our earnest efforts to effect genuine and lasting social change, we might do well to examine the political situations in which such change, whether merely rhetorical or active on the streets, is to take place” (Walters 837).

Substituting political posturing for spiritual discussion creates a society from which all deities are expelled and replaced by secular rulers. In his May 1998 address to the nation, President Clinton emphasized that “nothing in the Constitution requires schools to be religion-free zones where children must leave their faiths at the schoolhouse door.” But, of course, there is always the question of how to channel spiritual beliefs into appropriate classroom practice. Dr. Keith Naylor, a consultant for California’s 3R’s Project, states that “the study of different religions and different religious perspectives is important to a pluralistic society such as the U.S.” (Proceedings 5). He instructs teachers how to teach religions with an emphasis on civil or secular facts, not ecclesiastical interpretation.

Restored Balance on Spiritual Perspectives

What can teachers do to restore balance to the First Amendment by endorsing students’ spiritual perspectives without prioritizing them? William R. Caspary reminds us of the need forreciprocity: “If I wished to teach [the student] to respect positions other than his [or her] own, the most effective way to do so was to respect his” (In Becker and Couto 32). Charles C. Haynes, Senior Scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, recommends faculty work together to achieve objectives like the following:

1. State curricular frameworks and national standards should include a significant program of religious study. We need to lobby for state prerogatives for higher education learning objectives that will embrace the potential for religious expression in college classrooms. Representatives to state-based organizations or legislative bodies should be apprized of the need for full First Amendment support to include the right to express personal religious views.

2. Local school districts should offer more electives in religious studies. Faculty involved in curriculum development or review can encourage peers to developprograms and objectives that include a framework for appropriate religious expression in disciplines beyond history and philosophy.

3. Religious studies should become certifiable fields so there will be teachers in this area. Campuses need to create programs of religious study at the certificate level to fully prepare tomorrow’s teachers to include this curricular theme.

4. Colleges and schools of education must do more to prepare teachers andadministrators to address religious liberties issues in the classroom and within curricula. Every institution of higher learning should write policies that protect and guide the practices of religious expression that are suitable for their programs of study.

5. States must encourage textbook publishers to provide materials and include substantial and accurate treatment of religion. Departments and faculty mustselectively order texts that accurately and thoroughly represent diverse spiritual views. When errors are suspected, faculty should contact the editor or publisher, as a Midwest professor once did upon finding a misquote of Genesis in an anthology that seemed to favor feminism at the expense of accurate citation.

Dr. Haynes believes “if we can get public education to take religion more seriously in the curriculum, focus on the issues, then it seems to me the colleges and universities are
going to have to do it as well” (Proceedings 8).

Returning to my earlier experiences, armed with this information, I would handle each with greater sensitivity. Regarding the Picket Fences episode, for example, I would ask the entire class if they would like to explore the main tenets of the referenced faiths,
rather than allow two students to guide the discussion in a specific direction before ascertaining class support. With respect to my colleague who teaches American Literature, I would suggest she provide a written rationale to her students (by explaining
course learning objectives in her syllabus, for example) for including the Puritan literature. As for the erroneous textbook material, I feel faculty always should contact publishers when subject matter is unclearly or inaccurately represented.

Although recent tradition suggests that religious perspectives be left outside the classroom, it is clear that instructors need to abide by current law that protects personal expression when views are appropriately aired. It is time to formulate policies to guide
such discussions in meaningful ways. Faculty in higher education should be leaders, not followers. College campuses must become places where we open our doors and our minds to welcome spiritual perspectives, and bar erroneous or discriminatory texts and curricula. Instructors should consider steps like the following in their classrooms:

1. Be respectful of students’ religious views, whether expressed orally or in writing.

2. Admit religious discussion and debate into appropriate issues where spiritual perspectives often have strong roots, such as social issues like abortion, capital
punishment, and euthanasia, as well as values-based assignments.

3. Provide balance to discussions when one dominant view emerges. Be sure that students understand and respect opposing views.

4.Carefully assess curricula and materials to be sure they correctly represent variedreligious views. Discard those that offer only critical or limited interpretations.

Once I wrote to a textbook editor to point out interpretative errors in a section that quoted the Bible. She wrote back and insinuated her graduate student had done the research and was thus responsible, but she apologized and agreed that the needed changes would be made in the next revision.

5. Encourage students to research and present well-documented studies of specific belief systems. Do not allow them (or yourself) to settle for generalized, stereotypical views.

Having lived in the Middle East in the late twentieth century, I witnessed the circulation of inaccurate information about the U.S., including misperceptions about Christianity and Judaism. I remember how helpless and inadequate I felt in trying to clarify distorted perceptions about my country and my faith. I was disturbed to see that such mistaken ideas impacted negotiations with the U.S. with unhappy consequences for both sides.

As the well-known lyrics suggest, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” College instructors must provide the opportunity and the inspiration to give our students a truly well-rounded education. Let us not allow ourselves to be accused of narrow-mindedness and censorship. Instead, let us continue to build on the illustrious tradition of shining the light of intellectual inquiry even into the dark corners of spiritual ignorance.

For more information, contact the following organizations:

American Jewish Congress
15 East 84th Street
New York, NY 10028

Christian Legal Society
4208 Evergreen Lane, #222
Annandale, VA 22003
web site:

Freedom Forum
1101 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22209
web site:

National School Boards Association
1680 Duke Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 838-6703
web site:
Johanyak 13

For Further Reading

Collier, Andrew. Being and Work. London: Routledge, 1999.

Holmes, Arthur F. Fact, Value, and God. Grand Rapids: W. B. Erdman Publishers, 1997.

Holmes, Rolston III. Genes, Genesis, and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and
Human History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U Press, 1999.

Unger, Peter. Identity, Consciousness, and Value. NY: Oxford U Press, 1990.

Works Cited

Becker, Theodore L. and Richard A. Couto, Editors. Teaching Democracy by Being Democratic. Foreword by James MacGregor Burns. Praeger: Westport, 1996.

Proceedings before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Held in Washington, D.C.,New York City, and Seattle, Washington. Spring/Summer 1998.

Rand, Lizabeth. “Enacting Faith: Evangelical Discourse and the Discipline of Composition Studies.” Journal of the Conference on College Composition and Communication 52:3 / Feb 2001. 349-367.

Walters, Frank D. “Writing Teachers Writing and the Politics of Dissent.” College English 57:7 / Nov 1995.

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