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TAUBE: A leap of faith in the classroom

Public school students would benefit from studying world religions

- - Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Many public school officials cringe at the very notion of teaching religion in the classroom. By doing so, they're missing out on a real opportunity to promote religious tolerance and education to impressionable young minds.

Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, co-creators of the successful History Channel miniseries "The Bible," want to change this attitude about religion. In an intriguing Wall Street Journal op-ed last month, the two Hollywood stars suggested it's "time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization."

Ms. Downey and Mr. Burnett wrote that the Bible "has affected the world for centuries in innumerable ways, including art, literature, philosophy, government, philanthropy, education, social justice and humanitarianism." While acknowledging the act of teaching this important religious document "is of course a touchy subject it is possible to have education without indoctrination."

For proof, they briefly discussed the 1963 Supreme Court case of Abington School District v. Schempp. An important portion of the court's decision was also reprinted: " ... 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 a part of a secular (public school) program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."

I may be a non-religious Jew, but I completely agree with Ms. Downey and Mr. Burnett. The Bible is an important component of our world's history and development. Teaching the Good Book in the public schools would, therefore, enhance a student's educational experience and intellectual journey.

That being said, why stop there? We could go much further. For instance, I once proposed the introduction of a course on world religions for Canadian public schools. I firmly believe it would greatly benefit the U.S. public school system, too.

A mandatory course on world religions would substantially increase a student's knowledge of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other faiths. It would also reduce the amount of fear and discomfort some individuals still have when it comes to learning about other traditions, entering different houses of worship, and so forth.

Moreover, it would give our society a more comprehensive understanding of religious history, teachings and groups. It would be crucial to include course materials with passages straight from the Bible as well as the Torah, Koran and many other religious texts. To help with this task, religious teachers and spiritual leaders could be asked to participate or even lead classroom discussions on a particular topic or historical event.

Some people would be repulsed at religion being discussed in our nonreligious (and occasionally anti-religious) public schools. Others would argue that this proposed course adds nothing to the overall education equation. Still others would scoff at this suggestion being nothing more than a liberal fantasy about religious tolerance.

They would be wrong in all three cases. In particular, conservatives should be the strongest defenders of a mandatory course on world religions.

While religion plays an important role in the Republican Party, it's often treated with mistrust and scorn outside party circles. The introduction of a world religions course would gradually remove this albatross and, hopefully, provide students with more rational viewpoints about the teachings and practices of faith-based groups.

It would also serve to benefit children and their parents in terms of enhancing their overall learning, knowledge and education. Conservatives often state that public schools are severely lacking in these categories and others — and justifiably so. Here's a way public education could improve overall and provide a better understanding of religion's important role in democratic societies.

The quest for religious tolerance is something to which all Americans, including conservatives, should aspire. You obviously can't snap your fingers and assume it will magically happen. It will take hard work, effort and a willingness to learn about others. Greater appreciation, understanding and tolerance will also enrich our daily lives and personal experiences. If conservatives think this is nothing more than a liberal fantasy, we will be destined to face a long and miserable future as political failures.

"The Bible" miniseries' high ratings provide some rudimentary evidence that American audiences are intrigued by teachings about the Bible. By taking a leap of faith and extending Ms. Downey and Mr. Burnett's proposal to a mandatory world religions course, the overall societal benefits could be enormous. That's something GOP politicians should seriously consider in coming election cycles.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a contributor to The Washington Times.