My name is Jim Morrison (not to be confused with the lead singer of The Doors – he’s dead and buried in Paris). For nearly eighteen years I have taught a world religion course in a public high school in Red Wing, Minnesota. It is a course and curriculum that I developed.
What I do is very rare and controversial, and people often assume that what I am doing is illegal. It is not. The Supreme Court has made it very clear that teaching about religion in public schools is not only legal, but necessary for a student’s understanding of the world. Here is what the court has ruled:
It 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.
— Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963)
The career path I have chosen has not been easy. The line of separation between church and state in a public high school religion class is a fine line to walk, and it can be a minefield to navigate – a little step to the “right” or “left” and BANG, everything blows up. And, yes, I do speak from experience. On many occasions I have been accused of “being the devil’s puppet,” and I have seen the outraged faces of evangelical parents trying to “protect” their children from “losing their faith” as a result of my “blasphemous” lesson plans. And, given the rancorous and scathing attacks on me by some ministers and parents, one might think that I was guilty of barbecuing a kitten rather than teaching teenagers about religion. On numerous occasions I have been condemned to hell for “polluting the minds of children with false and dangerous ideas.” Consequently, the school district and I have been threatened with law suits, and threats have been made against my safety, causing the local police to get involved.
Ironically, the controversy surrounding my religion class has not been the result of me violating the law, but rather complying with the law! The law clearly states that I cannot favor one religion over others, I cannot show bias, and I must treat religions with equal enthusiasm and objectivity. However, to people who believe that their religion is the only “true” religion, and that their religious figure (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, etc.) is the only true voice of wisdom and salvation, equal treatment is offensive to their faith. Hence, the controversial nature of teaching about religion, even when it is done lawfully and objectively.
Despite all the harassing phone calls, criticism from conservatives, and headaches I have experienced over the years, I remain a firm believer in the idea that all K-12 public schools – if they are truly serious about teaching about diversity and promoting tolerance – must honestly teach children about the religions of the world and the role religions have played in creating(and sometimes destroying) human civilization. The case can certainly be made that “the jury is still out” as to whether religion has done more harm than good in the world. Whatever the verdict may be, students need to hear the arguments, see the evidence, and be free to make up their own minds about religion and the religions of the world.
Regardless of what people may believe, one thing is certain: religion is a powerful force that shapes human history and inspires people and nations to great and horrible deeds. The influence of religion is profound, and despite the great advancement in scientific reasoning, religion is showing no signs of losing its strength. A recent Gallop polls shows that nearly forty percent of Americans reject evolutionary science, the unifying theory in science, and subscribe instead to a literal view of Biblical creation and stories about talking serpents. The country is clearly divided, and this is one reason why religion needs to be thoroughly taught, discussed, and debated among children in public schools. In other words: for students to develop an informed opinion about religion they must first be informed.
It is my hope that this blog will become a useful forum for my students, former students, future students, parents, and anyone interested in religion and the teaching about religion in public school, to discuss and debate this important topic. I look forward to great discussions and debates, and I will respond as often as I can to comments and questions.