By Catherine Woodiwiss 12-19-2015

On Dec. 18, schools across Augusta County, Va., closed for the day in response to controversy over an assignment at Riverheads High School, which involved copying out the shahada — the Muslim statement of faith. The assignment, part of a world religions unit, was intended to teach students the “complexity of calligraphy.”

Though no specific threats were reported, intense anger over the assignment prompted Superintendent Eric Bond to temporarily close schools for the county’s 10,500 students as a precautionary measure.

“A lot of people have been shocked that this happened. I’m not shocked at all,” says journalist Linda K. Wertheimer, author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance.

Wertheimer, a former education editor for the Boston Globe, is Jewish, and talks about being teased for her religion as one of the only Jewish kids in her public school. “I always wondered, was it anti-Semitism, or was it ignorance?” she says. “Would it make a difference if the schools had taught about many religions instead of just one?”

Here, she talks with Sojourners about the Augusta County’s decision to shut down its school, and why education about religion is so important today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Catherine Woodiwiss, Sojourners: So — what happened here?

Linda K. Wertheimer, author, Faith Ed.: I often find that the general public really has no idea that teachers are allowed to teach about the world’s religions in public schools. There’s a clear disconnect between what educators are doing and what the public thinks they can do.

Then you add to this that people really don’t know that much about religions in general. The idea that a kid’s going to get converted by trying to write calligraphy, even if it’s a statement of faith — I mean, that seems like, really?

These kinds of controversies have happened all over the country, and seem to have a common thread — parents will say, “You’re trying to indoctrinate our kids into Islam, and how dare you teach these lessons.” That’s a common fear.

But I do think people should consider whether something might actually be offensive. People worry, am I getting converted? Which I think is highly unlikely. But the other thing is — are you putting students in an extreme position of discomfort that you don’t need to?

Woodiwiss: Do you mean what may be uncomfortable for students who don’t share that faith, or for those who do?

Wetheimer: Who don’t. [Some teachers have] put out scarves and let students try them on. Is that an appropriate way to teach, or is it better maybe to show them one, rather than trying to reenact it?

But then, how can a teacher ever predict how someone will react? You should you teach what you know is legal. It’s definitely legal to teach about the world’s religions.

Woodiwiss: You’ve written about a ‘burkagate’ controversy in 2013, in which students in Lumberton, Texas were invited to try on burkas in a geography lesson, and it wound up prompting calls for a state investigation. How often do things like this happen?

Wertheimer: In all the cases I’ve reported, no one has shut down the school system. But the idea of hate mail and threats is not unusual. I’ve sat in superintendents’ offices as they show me copies of things they were sent, filled with anti-Muslim rants. It was not an even discourse. Which you could have! There are some valid questions for reasoned discourse. But there hasn’t been that.

Woodiwiss: Why do you think Superintendent Bond made this decision to close all schools in the county?

Wertheimer: Given the times we’re now in, I’m not going to second guess what he did. There have been a number of threats made to schools over nothing, and now he’s got threats over something real. In Wichita, Kan., they put extra security in schools for two weeks over something like this in 2013.

What the Virginia school system is experiencing has happened in other school systems. Was this the right decision? I can’t make that call. But I’ve seen the contents of what other school systems have received, and it’s been very, very vile and hateful, and sometimes scary.

Woodiwiss: Where for you is the line between teaching about belief in an education and respectful way, and preaching belief?

Wertheimer: It’s not my line. It’s a legal line. The line to me comes if a teacher steps into promoting one belief over others. When a kindergarten teacher puts a sign above her classroom that says, “I believe in Christ,” that’s stepping over the line. If she stuck it in a drawer in her desk, no problem.

Teaching is, here’s where Christianity came from. And I think it’s okay to talk about that. For Jews, Moses is a key figure. Abraham is a key figure in all three religions. In Islam, Mohammad is a key figure. That’s not preaching.

Woodiwiss: You highlight the basic religious literacy gap, and how most people don’t even know that teaching about religion is legal. How can schools best approach making people aware of this?

Wertheimer: Given the tenor of the times we live in, I think the schools need to be as proactive as they can about informing parents that we teach about the world’s religions.

My sense from talking to educators around the country is that many of them feel like, “Well, this should be obvious. It’s obvious that we do this.” But they’ve been doing it for so long, I think some of them don’t realize that every time a new set of parents comes around, it’s new for those parents.

Some are doing this. Wellesley Middle School [in Wellesley, Mass.] teaches about the world’s religions in sixth grade — they send a letter home to parents to let them know, “Every year we teach about the world’s religions as part of social studies, we take field trips, and we don’t proselytize. We are teaching this as an academic course and here’s why teach it.”

The Core Knowledge Foundation, which oversees core curriculum used in several hundred elementary schools around the country, public and private, provides a take-home letter for schools to use if they so desire. And that letter informs parents about religion coming up in any curriculum in first through fifth grade. They’ll also say things like, “We don’t promote belief, and if your child asks something like, well this isn’t what I believe, we ask the child to discuss it with his or her parents.” They’re very clear in the letter about what they’re doing. I think those two are really good examples.

But the main controversy, frankly, has been over Islam. I think it’s actually very important that they emphasize they teach about Christianity, too, because another thing that comes out of these debates is, “You kick Christianity out of schools, but you’re teaching about Islam?” But they are teaching about Christianity.

Woodiwiss: Is education about religion declining? Or just becoming harder and harder to do in today’s climate?

Wertheimer: I wouldn’t say it’s declining. If anything it’s probably increasing in the last few decades because of state standards, which calls world religions part of social studies and geography. That’s clear across the board — almost every state does that. It’s part of the package of education. So it’s not declining.

I think what we are seeing in the last five years or so is more controversy over the teaching about religion, particularly regarding Islam. But it’s so important to reducing the ignorance out there. Teaching about religion has the power to decrease bullying of religious minorities, and ideally decrease the kind of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism we’re seeing right now.

Does that make teachers’ jobs harder? Yes, particularly if they’ve been ones caught in the crossfire.

Catherine Woodiwiss (@chwoodiwiss) is Deputy Web Editor at Sojourners.

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