What is the distinction between teaching about religion and instruction in, or the teaching of, religion? The California Department of Education offers this distinction that is instructive for educators everywhere:
“To teach about religion is not to instruct in religion. Teaching about religion embraces the study of various religions; appreciation of the nature and variety of religious experience historically and currently; information on past and present sources, views, and behavior of religious persons or groups; and the influence of religion on cultures and civilizations. Instruction in religion, by contrast, is to seek acceptance of and commitment to a particular religion, including a non-religion, such as secularism.”
Lest someone think that teaching about religion requires neutrality bordering on indifference, the state officials also write that to learn about religion is “to recognize the immense importance of religion to the American heritage.”
Lessons about Judeo-Christian history, thought, and values can—and should—be taught with as much enthusiasm as any other subject, but it is important for Christian public school educators to refrain from evangelizing in the classroom. Appeals for students to make faith commitments are not permitted.
I once had a teacher tell me, “If I can’t tell my students that they need to make a decision for Christ, well, then I should get out of teaching and become a missionary.” He’s right. If he can’t stay within legal boundaries, he should leave the profession. However, I urged him to channel his enthusiasm into giving students an academic appreciation for the values and contributions of Christianity. To be fired for stepping over legal boundaries would not only mute his voice, it would be a poor example to the school administrators, and create a chilling effect academically for other teachers in his district.
We must have the integrity to honor the trust that parents give us when we teach their children. If Christian public school teachers try to use their classrooms for evangelistic opportunities, others may conclude that Christians, in general, cannot be trusted.
Here’s a rule of thumb: When there is an academic reason for teaching students about some aspect of Judeo-Christian history, thought, or values (and there are ample opportunities to do so), and it can be done without an admonition to devotion or acceptance, it is permissible.