Back to School at The First Public School In the Country To Require a World Religions Course

Sherry McIntyre teaches world religions at Johansen High in Modesto. Photo by Nan Austin of the Modesto Bee.

We are a nation of religious illiterates.

From the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims, to the Hindu values invoked by India’s BJP party, to Biblical allusions that saturate American political rhetoric, survey data shows Americans know almost nothing about religion.

Religion scholars (including Diane Moore, Stephen Prothero, and myself) have suggested that change must begin in the schools. The establishment clause does not forbid teaching about religion from a non-devotional perspective and, in theory, students are already required to learn about world religions as part of world history. But whenever someone proposes a high school world religion course, naysayers chime in: “Conservative Christian parents will never allow it!,” “Students will convert to other religions!,” “Proselytizers will take over the class and indoctrinate students!”

Assuaging these concerns is difficult because we have no case studies to assess whether they’re warranted . . . except one.

Fifteen years ago, Modesto, California, became the first public school district in the country to have a required course on world religion. The ninth-grade World Geography and Religion (WGR) course devotes nine weeks to religion. The First Amendment Center, which helped design the course, conducted a study to assess its effectiveness, finding that students had more accurate and balanced information about world religion as well as an increased understanding and appreciation of the First Amendment.

Not only had there been no noticeable controversy, but the researchers suggested courses like this could prevent public schools from becoming battlefields in the culture wars. The study did find room for improvement, but the course had not been the political Armageddon that some had anticipated.

Sherry McIntyre has taught this course every period of every school day since it was implemented. She spoke with me about the history of the course and why it has been so effective in Modesto.


Joe Laycock: How did the program get started?

Sherry McIntyre: There is a long history leading up to the creation of this course that began with one student and his parents. The young man was gay and being bullied so the parents went to the superintendent, James Enochs. He was horrified by what he heard and immediately contacted Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center about creating a district-wide program focusing on respect.

From that encounter many programs were born, including our “Principles of rights, responsibilities and respect to ensure a safe school environment” program and our nine character trait program (I tie each character trait into a religion and use the quotes on the posters as quick writes each day).

Mr. Enochs also asked the social studies curriculum coordinator to brainstorm with the teachers how else they could add to all of this. They decided that religious discrimination was due to lack of knowledge and that a course specifically in world religions would be helpful. Again they asked Dr. Haynes to assist and the course was born. Anyone who says one single voice can’t be heard is wrong. That brave young man and his parents made a change. I understand he is an attorney now.

What were some of the concerns and obstacles raised when you began discussing the program?

My first two years as a teacher were the years that the rights, responsibilities, and respect and character trait programs were developed and implemented. My third year was the year WGR was being created and I was one of the 20 or so teachers district wide that was asked to teach the course in its maiden voyage the next year.

I wish I had been around to be a part of the creation, but I am still good friends with several who were. They speak about the obvious concerns––being accepted by the community, being fair, objective, respectful, etc. Their solution to avoiding these issues was to bring in members of the community representing all the major world religions as well as parents. Everyone was invited to sit at the table and give input and everyone felt heard. I am convinced this was the most important part of this course being successful from day one.

The irony is that our first year was perfect. No complaints. No issues. No controversy. We met as a group the week before school started the next year and patted ourselves on the backs and felt very proud of our great accomplishment. The second school year began on September 4, 2001––and one week later 9/11 occurred. We knew the real test was ahead of us now. Luckily, we were in the beginning of the geography quarter. We had a few weeks before religion and Islam comes at the end of the semester. The 2001-2002 school year was as successful as the previous year had been. In ways, more so.

The course not only covers world religions, but also Roger Williams, the First Amendment, and Supreme Court cases concerning the separation of church and state. Why start a course on world religions by looking at Constitutional law?

This is why WGR has remained a strong part of our social studies department. I spend two and a half weeks on the “Intro to World Religions” unit. I explain to my students that when you build a house you can’t skimp on the foundation even though it is not the part we can see. If the foundation is faulty, the house will not be strong. The intro unit is the foundation of the course. It is the reason why we teach about these religions and the reason we can teach about these religions.

Roger Williams is my personal hero (I went to Providence last year and paid my respects at his museum and memorial) and by the time my students are finished with the intro unit they are very well aware of who he is and how he bravely paved the way for the birth of the First Amendment.

The First Amendment and Supreme Court cases we discuss come next with great emphasis placed on the religious freedom clause and their civil rights. I demand that they know their rights and stand up for those rights if another person is being harassed––not because they agree with the person being harassed (I tell them they can absolutely disagree) but because the rights belong to all of us. If we allow anyone to chip away at those rights we will see the foundation of our nation weaken (back to my foundation analogy!)

Can parents opt out if they don’t want their children to learn about other religions? And how many parents did this?

We do allow for an opt out but I honestly have never heard of anyone using it. We have many homeschooled children in Modesto as well as several strong Christian schools. I assume any parents who feel that strongly probably don’t have their kids in our district.

To your knowledge, have any students converted to another religion and abandoned their family’s religion as a result of this course?

We make a very strong point to tell the kids we teach about religion, not preach. We are fair and objective at all times. I really don’t know if any student has converted to another religion but we have educated tens of thousands of students in world religions over the past 15 years and I’m sure some have looked into other religions later in life. If they did it was not due to the class itself, but possibly because they knew the differences and most importantly, similarities between the religions of the world.

I’ve had students tell me they intended to study world religions in college and I’ve had students long after they were in my class tell me that they’ve used their understanding of world religions in their lives. One former student said it helped her not be afraid of other religions and she did take a fresh look at her own point of view as an adult.

Have there been any problems with instructors or guest speakers shifting from teaching about religion to advocating a particular religion?

We do not allow guest speakers in our classes for this very reason. We are very careful about protecting the integrity of our course, especially the “teach not preach” part. You can never be sure what a speaker might say and avoiding controversy is incredibly important to us. One strong voice made this class happen and I assume the opposite is just as possible.

What obstacles have you encountered?

Time is always an issue in teaching, isn’t it? I wish I had them longer so we could cover more religions. We could use new textbooks (another common theme in education) and any materials and lessons we need we have to create. We try to maintain continuity within the district, so we have a group of four teachers that have taught WGR from day one (I am one of the four) under the leadership of the social studies curriculum coordinator who meet to work on new materials and discuss the future of the course. Our intention is to keep it current and that all teachers are using district approved lessons and materials.

What kind of training do teachers need to offer a class like this?

We first teachers were given a wonderful training in 2000 with follow up meetings in 2001. New teachers have had to take a “course” designed by the district to prepare them for teaching the class. There is no credential for this class so we are all “social studies teachers.” I’d like to see religious studies become a separate credential for teachers but that’s unlikely. Most religion scholars are teaching in the university.

Do you think this curriculum could be implemented in other school districts?

I know it could and it should. I had hoped it would happen within our first five years. 15 years have now passed. It’s time!