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!


  •' Jim Reed says:

    I know we have learned a lot about world religions from our discussions here on RD. Perhaps these students could be invited to join us here for some of our discussions. The more we discuss, the better.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    Awesome. The U.S. needs more of this.

  •' cmbennett01 says:

    There is a tendency among some of the non-religious to think that all vestiges of public religiosity must be stamped out in order that the children might be shielded from these dangerous ideas. It’s a slippery slope and who knows where it might lead. Think of the children.
    Now, before the righteous atheist chorus chimes in with “No! That’s not us. That’s them” I suggest you peruse the various atheist blogs around the Internets. I do, because I am an atheist, and I see a lot of irrational fear and hyperbole about the insidiousness of religion in the public sphere.
    A curriculum that includes a course on world religions would I think go a long way toward undermining blind faith in dogmatic religion. It would also I think be of use in broadening the outlook of atheists.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Right, instead of an atheist blog, or a blind faith blog, we need something that is open to an honest look at both sides, like here.

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    Christainity is so widely varied I can’t help wondering how its described in a time certain setting of public school courses. Even U.S. history is now shortened. In my schooling of the 1960’s the teacher could hardly get us to present time. That was decades ago So which version of Christianity is taught? Sorry, but there can be some legitmate concern over this. I’m thinking I’d rather have such a course as this taught as literature, not belief if that is what the basis is of this course.

  •' nightgaunt says:

    A good idea. However why allow an opt out? Those are the very ones who need it most.

  •' nightgaunt says:

    There are Atheist blogs that look at them objectively. And not monolithically. We can have an Agnostic blog that will still side with the idea that deities cannot be known, but we must accept them as existing anyway.

  •' nightgaunt says:

    Yes only some. However our or any govt should not promote or suppress religion. Its in the First Amendment. Instead the wall of separation is pockmarked and looks like Swiss cheese these days as the separation is eroded constantly. Theocracy via back door.

    Not what our Founders wanted. They had seen how pernicious such things are. Not just in England, but France, Russia, etc and it wasn’t good for the people.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The devil is in the details.

  •' UpperClassTwitOfTheYear says:

    I can see the use of having a course that teaches world religions as religions often impact international and national politics and culture. It could be a good way of beginning to learn about other cultures and your neighbors. I think the article explained possible protests well but I still have thoughts troubling me; why add an opt out option? and what counts as a world religion? It is beneficial for children or teenagers to learn about others and have the chance to question their own beliefs and biases. Parents these days all too often try to control their children to a harmful extent. An opt out of this class would only be slowing kids down and keeping them from growing or learning empathy. Though I think the class should be taught and that it must begin somewhere what gets taught troubles me. How many religions do they teach? What counts? Do they include things like Animism or Yoruba? And how do they do the overviews? Many have long historical and cultural identities that are hard to cram into a week or a class period of time.

  •' cmbennett01 says:

    I didn’t say that government should support or promote it, but there’s a certain crowd that tends to loose their mind if a teacher wears a crucifix or a politician prays in public. We are no more in danger from a theocracy than we have ever been. The separation of church and state has not been eroded, it is upheld whenever and wherever it is challenged.

  •' apotropoxy says:

    I can think of no more efficient way to create fellow atheists than to teach comparative religion in American public schools.

  •' Richard Wade says:

    I hope the course includes more on atheism than just a single-sentence dismissal saying in effect, “Oh, atheism just doesn’t believe in any of this.” What skepticism is and is not should be carefully described, the difference between “weak atheism” and “strong atheism” and the accurate definition of agnosticism should be discussed, the history of famous freethinkers should be presented, and the widespread social myths and misconceptions about atheists should be debunked.

  •' SMK_Boston says:

    I’d love to see more of the lessons and curriculum of the class. Is it published anywhere?

  •' SMO_Boston says:

    Thanks for the well written article and the great information, btw.

  •' nightgaunt says:

    I thought it was Jehovah.

  •' nightgaunt says:

    Those are few and far between and can be controlled.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    At the moment, Republicans want to shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood. Isn’t that religiously motivated?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I think you just made my point.

  •' nightgaunt says:

    And your point is…? But of course how can an omniscient, omnipresent all powerful deity not be in charge of everything? Hard to have a scape goat, but we get to be it.

  •' cmbennett01 says:

    Let me know when they shut it down.

  •' Bee Wald says:

    Reading this article made me realize about all other students who are not part of this district. I believe this program should be implemented nationwide. It is very important for students to learn about world religions to prevent judgement and fear. Also, it opens their perspective to a variety of culture and allows them to learn a sense of appreciation.

  •' joeyj1220 says:

    I would imagine that when covering various religions, atheism would come up. One cannot discuss the history of Christianity without the effect Enlightenment thinking had in Europe, nor can one cover adequately Buddhism without its non-theistic schools of thought. On the other hand (and I say this as an atheist), many prominent atheists are constantly claiming atheism is NOT a religion and claim they cannot be pegged as a “belief”, therefor it seems a bit strange having a whole section on atheism in a religion course. Atheists can’t have their cake and eat it too

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  •' ortcutt says:

    “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 would worry about someone teaching Constitutional Law who thinks there’s a “religious freedom clause”. I would also worry about someone who uses a term like “religious freedom clause” emphasizing the Free Exercise Clause at the expense of the Establishment Clause. This is why people like myself are so suspicious of courses like this, a bias for religion over non-religion, and a bias for an radically expansive conception of “religious freedom”.

  •' Lamb says:

    I taught a world religions class in a public high school for 22 years. The impact of religion in the world is a fact not a bias. Understanding religions is crucial if we are going to intelligently approach issues in foreign policy or the views of the new family that moved in down the street. Teaching about religion is much like teaching about any other subject when it comes to being fair and using common sense. It is not that hard to do. Any teacher dumb enough to have a bias for or against religion or for or against any particular religion will not last long.

  •' Meg Griffin says:

    While separation between church and state is there for a reason, I think having a religion course in a public school is a positive thing. I believe a worlds religion class can be seen as a history class with maybe one more incorporated concept, religion. Religion, in my opinion, goes hand in hand with history, so we if teach history openly, why not teach religion? Most countries were founded on religion, and if not solely, religion still had a huge impact. I think it’s important for youth today to understand that, and be introduced to religion and other cultures and how they incorporate religion.

  •' Sir Buster-da-Pug says:

    I absolutely think that is a positive thing for public schools. Students should learn about other religions around the world and open up to the idea that their religion is not the only or correct religion out there.

  •' Gem #14 says:

    I think this is a great way to teach kids how to be objective and fair about religion despite the biased western culture we live in

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