Subjects: Reading and Language Arts, Social Studies, ELL/ESL, Science and Health
Categories: Religion; Diversity and Inclusion; Bullying and Exclusion; Stereotypes and Bias
This Teaching Tolerance story centers on the marginalization of atheists and other unbelievers. But many students will be able to relate to the pressure these teenagers face to conform to societal norms.
- Free write about a time when you encountered either personal discrimination or pressure to conform to what is “normal” or “accepted” within a group.
- Share what you’ve written orally and explain what you did to counter that pressure.
What the Constitution Says
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion in two important ways. One guarantee is called the “free exercise” clause and affirms the individuals right to follow – or not follow—whatever religion she chooses. The other guarantee is the “establishment” clause, which prohibits the government from favoring a specific religion.
Read the First Amendment and examine the two clauses. Keep in mind that the words “Congress shall make no law” have been applied to the states through the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection clause,” and that public schools are run by the state. So you can read the clauses as if they say “public schools shall not …”
Using three different colored highlighters—one for the “free exercise” clause, one for the “establishment” clause and one for “neither/not sure”—mark the article to show which applies in each of these instances:
- Damon Fowler reminded the superintendent that a planned public prayer at graduation was against the law.
- Fowler says he has a Constitutional right of “freedom of and from religion.”
- High school administrators outside Houston denied permission for a “nontheists” group to meet.
- A Chicago high school doesn’t allow the Atheist Club to use the word “atheist” on posters.
- The U.S. Equal Access Act (1984) says that schools with at least one student-formed club cannot forbid the creation of others, such as Christian Students Clubs.
Ostracism and Belonging
The article “The Unaffiliated Unite” offers many examples of ways that outsiders are pressured to conform by groups or suffer ostracism. In a small group, find several examples in the article. Feel free to add to the list with examples of ostracism you’ve seen in your school. Consider:
- When does ostracism or social pressure to conform cross the line into bullying? Is there a line?
- Is negative peer pressure (i.e., the kind that says “don’t be or act the way you do,” ever acceptable? Why or why not?
It’s often said that people fear what they don’t know. Certainly, many believers might be surprised at the variety of ways to be seen as a religious outsider. The article uses these different words: unbeliever, atheist, non-believer, freethinker, agnostic, humanist, non-theist and secularist. With a partner, discuss what you think each word means. Look for the subtle differences among them. For example, could a person be affiliated with a religion and be this word? Does the word mean the person isn’t spiritual? What is the person’s position on the existence of God? Once you feel comfortable with the meanings, see if you can find ways to group the words and present your findings to another pair of students.
English: The Power of a Phrase
The author describes the process of admitting to atheism as “coming out,” a phrase typically used when someone goes public about his or her sexual orientation. How does being an atheist among people who practice religion compare to being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) among heterosexuals?
What Educators Need to Know About Religion and Public Schools
Many educators are confused about what is and isn’t allowed in public schools. Some think the subject is such a minefield that it’s best left alone, and they learn not to mention religion at all. Others struggle with how much information they should reveal about themselves, or with whether they can comfortably talk about their own religious beliefs with students.
A great source is the First Amendment Center. Go here and scroll down to the “Religion in Public Schools” section.
Additionally, Keep it Academic suggests resources that allow teachers to integrate religious studies into the academic curriculum without taking sides. Maintain Neutrality also illustrates how schools can teach religious tolerance and stay within constitutional boundaries.
Around the Web
First Amendment Center