How Young is Too Young? Teaching About Religion in Public Schools

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Linda K. Wertheimer
Journalist and Author

Date: November 10, 2015

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Co-sponsored by the Lynch School of Education and Human Development.


The place of religion in public schools is a passionately debated topic in American society. While there are some on the right who have grown incensed by the inclusion of Islamic history in the curriculum of some school districts, many have called on government leaders to reserve a place in the public curriculum for discussions about different faith traditions. Stemming from a Boston Globe Magazine cover story about the controversy surrounding a Massachusetts' middle school's field trip to a local mosque, Linda K. Wertheimer chronicles the public debate about religion in America's public schools in her newest book.

Speaker Bio

Linda K. Wertheimer

Linda K. Wertheimer is the author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance(Beacon Press). The book chronicles public schools’ efforts to teach about the world’s religions in several regions of the country and stems from a Boston Globe Magazine cover story she wrote about Wellesley Middle School’s challenges after it faced controversy for taking children on a field trip to a mosque. She worked full-time for major metro newspapers for more than 20 years, including serving as education editor of The Boston Globe and as a reporter at The Dallas Morning News and The Orlando Sentinel. She has won numerous awards for her writing, including second prize from the Education Writers Association. She was a 2014 finalist in the Massachusetts Cultural Council artist fellowship awards for an excerpt from Faith Ed.

Wertheimer holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, with her husband and son. She teaches at Grub Street, a writers’ organization in Boston, and teaches journalism part-time at Boston University.


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Journalist and author Linda K. Wertheimer speaks about religion in public schools at a Boisi Center event on November 10, 2015.

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Photos by MTS photography

Event Recap

The question of whether religion should play a role in the curriculum of public schools is a topic fraught with disagreement. Some Americans think the First Amendment means that religion has no place in public schools. Others have stressed the need to educate children about diverse faith traditions as a critical component of creating a society that understands and respects those diverse beliefs.

In a November 10 talk at Boston College, education journalist and author Linda K. Wertheimer supported comparative religious education in public schools that exposes students to conceptual ideas about religion. She said that a critical question is when that education should begin. Co-sponsored by the Lynch School of Education, Wertheimer’s talk, “How Young Is Too Young? Teaching About Religion in Public Schools,” was centered on the major themes of her newly released book, Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance.

Wertheimer’s research into the intersection of religious education and public schools began in 2011 when she authored a cover story for Boston Globe Magazine chronicling the controversy surrounding a Wellesley, Massachusetts middle school’s trip to a Boston mosque. Citing models of three school districts teaching about world religions, she argued in her talk that the sooner students are educated about religions the better. Even kindergarteners can be introduced thoughtfully and responsibly to world religions through children’s books. According to Wertheimer, teaching about religions in the classroom will lead to a more educated and tolerant population.

In teaching about religions, it is crucial for the fine line between teaching and preaching to be managed, in keeping with the US Constitution, something Wertheimer thinks teachers can do with proper support from their districts. She argued for an educational system in which teachers receive robust training about how to introduce religious ideas into the classroom and on managing questions or comments from students about the material.

Drawing on her own experience as a journalist, Wertheimer said the media has an obligation to report about comparative religious education fairly and comprehensively. Doing so, she thinks, would help avoid controversy that often surrounds news stories about religions in public schools.

Read More


Biondo, Vincent F. and Andrew Fiala, eds. Civility, Religious Pluralism, and Education(New York: Routledge, 2014).

DelFattore, Joan. The Fourth R: Conflicts Over Religion in America’s Public Schools. (Yale University Press, 2004).

Deckman, Melissa M. and Joseph Gilbert Prud’homme. Curriculum and the Culture Wars(Peter Lang, 2014).

Fraser, James. Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America. (St. Martin Press, 1999).

Green, Steven K. The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine(Oxford University Press, 2012). 

Greenawalt, Kent. Does God Belong in Public Schools? (Princeton University Press, 2005).

Haynes, Charles C. and Oliver Thomas, Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools, (First Amendment Center, 2001).

Kunzman, Robert. Grappling with the Good: Talking about Religion and Morality in Public Schools. (State University of New York Press, 2006).

Lester, Emile. Teaching about Religions: A Democratic Approach for Public Schools(University of Michigan Press 2011).

Macedo, Stephen. Diversity and Distrust: Civic Education in a Multicultural Democracy(Harvard University Press, 2000).

Marty, Martin E. with Jonathan Moore. Education, Religion, and the Common Good. (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

Moore, Diane L. Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Multicultural Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education(Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Nash, Robert J. Faith, Hype, and Clarity: Teaching About Religion in American Schools and Colleges(Teachers University Press, 1999).

Nord, Warren A. Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities(Oxford University Press, 2010).

Nord, Warren A. Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma(University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

Nord, Warren A. and Charles C. Haynes. Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum. (First Amendment Center, 1998).

Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t. (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).

Ravitch, Diane and Joseph P. Viteritti, eds. Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society(Yale University Press, 2001).

Waggoner, Michael D., ed. Religion in the Schools: Negotiating the New Commons(Roman & Littlefield Education, 2013).

WertheimerLinda K. Faith Ed, Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance(Beacon Press, 2015).


Erik Eckholm's article in The New York Times, “Battling Anew Over the Place of Religion in Public Schools."

Walter Feinberg's article in Religious Education, “An Assessment of Arguments for Teaching Religion in Public Schools in the United States."

Noah Feldman's article in The New York Times Magazine, “Universal Faith."

Steve Kraske and Lisa Rodriguez's article in KCUR-FM, “Teaching World Religion In Public Schools." 

Nicholas Piediscalzi's review in Religion & Education, "Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance."

Katherine Stewart's article in The New York Times, “Separation of Church and School."

Linda K. Wertheimer's article in Boston Globe Magazine, “A Test of Faith."

Linda K. Wertheimer's article in The Washington Post, “Public schools shouldn’t preach, but they should teach our kids about religion."

In the News

Last month, former education editor of the Boston Globe, Linda K. Wertheimer spoke about the importance of comparative religious education in our public schools in an interview with Radio Boston. Next month she will speak on the topic at Boston College in an event organized by the Boisi Center and the Lynch School of Education. 

The debate about the place of religion in public schools is renewed every September when students return to the classroom. In recent years, many conservatives have grown outraged by the inclusion of Islamic history in the curriculum of some schools. In a country that has grown increasingly diverse in the religious sphere, others have called on school districts to respect the faith traditions of all students. In a Nov. 10 talk at the Boisi Center, journalist and author Linda K. Wertheimer will argue that discussions of and respect for different faith traditions deserve a prominent place in the public curriculum.