OPINION: Theological education in public schools must be broad

In the past few years, several states have pushed to either encourage or require public schools to offer Bible literacy classes to their students. Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump called the idea “great” in a tweet. Having taxpayer-funded Bible literacy classes in schools is not only the opposite of “great” — it’s unconstitutional. If public schools adopt religious education curricula, they must implement a program similar to USC’s curriculum, which is diverse in schools of thought beyond those that use the Bible for teaching.

USC is located in an area that is nearly 40 percent Catholic, according to the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC — the next most popular religious affiliation is non-denominational Christian at approximately 4 percent. In other words, University Park is heavily populated by those who believe in biblical teachings. They’re in the overwhelming majority nationally as well, with more than 70 percent of Americans identifying as some sort of Christian, according to Pew Research Center.

While the majority of Americans are Christian, public schools still should not teach the Bible, as it would result in an illustration of tyranny of the majority, an inherent weakness of democratic systems. Majority rule allows for those in the majority to pursue their own interests, no matter the cost to the minority. This is why the Constitution and its Bill of Rights were established: to bound lawmakers to certain principles that even a majority can’t affect.

Public education should encourage curiosity and understanding of all kinds of  religious beliefs, but this can’t be done by favoring one tradition over another in public schools. The government cannot, in good conscience, ask tax-paying citizens from other religious traditions to pay for an explicitly Bible-centric course for students. However, the government can, and should, allow public schools to offer a broad spectrum of religious education options. USC’s School of Religion curriculum provides a perfect example.

At USC, the School of Religion offers students a variety of courses on different religious traditions. USC students can take classes on anything from Islamic mysticism to the religions of Japan. This sort of diversity, though it would have to be somewhat abridged and specified, is the kind of diversity that public schools must have if they adopt religious education curricula.

USC is a private university that can adopt any religious affiliation it wants, but it chooses to remain secular. However, students have formed dozens of religious organizations that are perfectly legitimate. Of these, there are over 40 Christian organizations and numerous others of different faiths.

If the Christian-based organizations, which are in the majority, were to petition the University to require all undergraduate students to take a course in Biblical literacy, a chunk of students’ time and tuition would go to learning about the Bible, whether they believe in it or not. The University would be biased to the Christian tradition, simply because it is the most represented in student groups. Many students, Christian or otherwise, would be outraged.

USC is a microcosm for the U.S. in this way. The Constitution states the government will have no involvement in matters of religion. If the government were to sponsor Bible classes in public schools, it would be showing preference to one tradition.

However, if the USC Interfaith Council were to petition the University to require a general religious education course that would cover all of the world’s major religions, it would be a different story. If the U.S. government were to fund religious education for many traditions, there would be no concern about preferential treatment.

A comprehensive religious education would be beneficial for U.S. students because of religion’s prominence in our society and current events. Religiously motivated actions plague newspaper and television headlines every day. Often, communities and cultures are shaped by their systems of belief. To assert that these ideas aren’t important ones would be ridiculous. But when a secular government begins entertaining the idea of favoring one tradition, and does so with taxpayer money, it fails to serve its students effectively and inclusively. Public schools should aim to educate students with the diversity of belief in the U.S. in mind. In secular America, anything else would be, well, sacrilegious.