Religion in school can be complicated. So Maryland teachers went to class


School was out – and now it was time for the teachers to be quizzed.

More than two dozen Maryland public school educators from Montgomery County furrowed their brows as the questions flashed on the screen. “Which is not one of the Ten Commandments?” More than half of them got it wrong. Then: “What was the religion of Maimonides?” Ten guessed that the sage was Buddhist; seven guessed he was Mormon. Six got the correct answer: Jewish.

Christopher Murray, left, watches a priest at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the District of Columbia speak to Montgomery County,, Maryland, teachers about Catholicism.(Photo by: Jonathan Ramirez, The Washington Post)

“When does the Jewish Sabbath begin?” popped up. Again, wrong answers – many of the teachers guessed Saturday. (It’s Friday night.)

“See?” one teacher muttered. “This is why I’m taking this class.”

In Montgomery County, these teachers say, the religious diversity of their students often astounds them. Students ask for days off for Diwali and share stories with classmates about celebrating Eid. To educators who aren’t familiar with religion, the multitude of traditions can be overwhelming.

That’s where this summer course comes in. For six days, Montgomery teachers of all grade levels tour some of the Washington area’s religious institutions, from a Muslim mosque to a Sikh gurdwara to a Jewish synagogue. They meet with experts who teach them about the difference between Catholic and Protestant, Sunni and Shia, atheist and agnostic.

And they discuss the thorny question of whether public school teachers should even be talking about religion at all.

The conversations among participants in the course, offered for county school employees who need continuing education credits, are a far cry from the discussions about religion in public schools unfolding elsewhere in the country. In many places, the idea most in vogue right now is teaching the Bible, not the wide variety of religions studied in Montgomery’s course.

Due to a coordinated effort by evangelical activists, 10 state legislatures considered laws this past year encouraging public schools to teach the Christian Bible as an important work of literature and influence on history. These Bible classes, which have withstood court scrutiny in the past, are popular offerings at high schools in many states, despite critics who say teachers might far too easily violate the First Amendment by promoting a religious message as a devotional truth.

Many schools that teach the Bible are located in some of the most heavily Christian areas of the country. While Montgomery County schools don’t ask about families’ religions, they have boasted that students come from 164 countries and speak 184 languages at home. About 72% are students of color.

In the summer course, which concluded this week, three of the educators raised their hands to say they had taught students who wear topknots traditional to Sikh boys; others said they had supported students who were fasting during Ramadan. Stacey Wahrman, an English teacher, said John F. Kennedy High School in Wheaton has become far more diverse than it was when she started teaching there 20 years ago.

Wahrman said she needed the primer on religious basics to help walk her students through some of the texts they read in English class, which make more sense to kids who learn how to decipher the religious references. The secret marriage vows that lead to the fatal events of “Romeo and Juliet,” for example? “It’s something they have a hard time wrapping their heads around, that a religious ceremony is something that they take that seriously.”

As a teacher, Wahrman said she needs to better understand her students’ religions. “I feel less comfortable, and it’s one thing I’m hoping this class will help me with, discussing evangelical Christianity,” Wahrman, who is Jewish, said on the first day of the course. She recalled reading the play “A Raisin in the Sun” with students. When some students said, based on a character considering an abortion, “She’s going to hell,” Wahrman felt she didn’t have the religious knowledge to respond confidently.

That’s the type of conversation that Christopher Murray, who teaches this course, wants to help teachers get through appropriately. This was the 10th time he taught a teachers’ course on religion, whether as a summer intensive or a 15-week night course during the school year.

Murray is simply a religion nerd. On visiting the many houses of worship that he takes the teachers to throughout the week, he says: “It’s kind of my Disney World.”

Before leaving last year for the private Catholic school Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in search of smaller class sizes and other perks, Murray taught social studies at Walter Johnson High School for 13 years – including an elective course on world religions.

When Murray asks the teachers questions about how they can legally teach religion in their schools, most say the subject is murky to them. Several say they believe it’s illegal to teach a class on religion, although it’s not – about half of Montgomery County’s high schools offer such an elective, according to Murray. When Murray says public school teachers can’t lead prayers, according to the Supreme Court, several teachers are surprised. (“Oops,” says one teacher, admitting she has led students who share her Muslim faith in prayer at school before.)

Teachers need this sort of training, argues Diane Moore, director of Harvard University’s Religious Literacy Project, because religion inevitably comes up in their classrooms.

“There are rarely opportunities for teachers themselves to be trained in the academic study of religion, to be able to teach those hot-button, volatile issues well,” Moore said. “The key, and it’s not that profound, is to give teachers . . . tools to teach religion in a responsible and constitutionally sound way.”

Moore’s program at Harvard also provides that training for teachers – although slightly differently. She said she wouldn’t recommend Murray’s approach of bringing teachers into houses of worship, since seeing one example of the practice of a particular faith might cloud their understanding of faith communities that are in fact highly diverse.

But for Joanna Fellows, a theater and film teacher at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, the whirlwind tour of Washington-area congregations was deeply informative. At a visit to an Episcopal church, one of the final stops of the week-long tour, she revealed she had been gleaning a lot of theology.

Her theater class is often a refuge for students struggling with their sexuality, she said. And when she talks to parents, they sometimes say that their religious beliefs lead them to condemn homosexuality.

Now, Fellows is rehearsing an answer steeped in what she has learned in one tour after another: “In Sikhism, they say the creator and the creation are one. In the Torah, we have this idea that God made us in His image. In Buddhism, you have a central concept that there is beauty and there is value in all life,” she said.

She said she knew almost nothing about these faiths before this week. She was raised Catholic and has identified with no faith since her teens.

Murray, the leader of the course, also grew up Catholic and then became nonreligious.

He always told his students on the first day of his world religions class that throughout his survey of faith traditions, he wouldn’t tell them what he himself believed in now. They could guess on the last day.

After taking the class, they hardly ever guessed correctly.

The answer? After making a careful study of the world’s religions, Murray eventually converted to Judaism, his wife’s faith, before their second son was born.

“It fit all my moral and progressive views,” he says. “I liked the questioning.”

He keeps encouraging fellow teachers to ask more questions, too.



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