Are Utah social studies standards doing their job?

Teaching freedom of religion in grades 7-12

January 22, 2021

This is part 8 in Sutherland’s new series that seeks to examine how Utah education standards prepare students to be active citizens. In this part, we analyze current social studies standards for grades 7-12. While there are a range of social studies courses in grades 7-12, we are first looking exclusively at the standards for the required one semester “civics course” titled United States Government and Citizenship.

Being truly educated means understanding one of the most powerful forces in the world: religion.

Being a truly educated American means understanding the importance of protecting that force: freedom of religion.

Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero said it this way, “From this nation’s beginnings, it has been widely understood that the success of the American experiment rests on an educated citizenry. Today it is simply irresponsible to use the word ‘educated’ to describe college graduates who are ignorant of the ancient creeds, stories, and rituals that continue to motivate the beliefs and behaviors of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. In a world as robustly religious as ours, it is foolish to imagine that such graduates are equipped to participate fully in the politics of the nation or the affairs of the world.”

Likewise, current United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and former United States Secretary of State John Kerry said, “In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”

It’s clear that education must touch on religion as well as its political context, religious freedom.

The Utah State Board of Education is currently in the standards revision process for the Utah State Social Studies standards only for elementary school grades (kindergarten through sixth grade), but we think it is helpful to review our state approach to civics education at all levels of education. Sutherland Institute is seeking to understand how well Utah’s current social studies standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government. For this review, we are specifically looking at freedom of religion.

To help assess how well the current standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government with regard to freedom of religion, we have decided to look for two main factors: (1) How well the standards promote religious literacy (knowledge of and ability to understand the civic role of religion in societies and cultures), and (2) how well they help students understand and articulate the connection between freedom of religion and other fundamental rights like freedom of speech or association.

United States Government and Citizenship course

How well the standards promote religious literacy (knowledge of and ability to understand the civic role of religion in societies and cultures)

No standards directly mention religion or any specific religions. Obviously, this means the standards likewise do not touch on the civic role of religion in societies and cultures.

How well standards help students understand and articulate the connection between freedom of religion and other fundamental rights like freedom of speech or association

The standards don’t directly reference freedom of religion. A couple of standards prompt students to look at “ideas” that may have influenced the Constitution or trace how the application of case law spells out the rights in the Bill of Rights, etc., which means that freedom of religion is likely to be discussed at some point. There is no standard that explicitly asks students to understand any relationship among our first freedoms. However, some standards relating to the origins of the Constitution and Bill of Rights are broad enough that it may encompass how freedom of religion impacts other freedoms.

Conclusion

In short, Utah’s grade 7-12 United States Government and Citizenship standards do not directly reference religion or freedom of religion, nor how this first freedom interacts with other liberties. While it may be difficult to fit a discussion of religion(s) into a civics course, certainly a weightier discussion of religious freedom in government could be included in a revision process.

(Note: What’s a “standard”? It is a broad statement of what students are expected to understand and/or know how to do within a certain discipline.

What’s an “objective”? An objective is a more focused description of what students need to know and/or be able to do within a given standard.

What’s an “indicator”? These are measurable and observable student actions that enable teachers to judge whether a student has mastered a particular objective.)

Jump to different parts of this series:

Utah Core Standards, Objectives and Indicators referenced:

Source: Utah Core Standards, Utah State Board of Education

U.S. GOV Standard 1.1: Students will explain how documents, challenges, events and ideas such as the rule of law, the social contract, compromise, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, Shays’ Rebellion, and the Federalist Papers significantly influences the United States Constitution.

U.S. GOV Standard 2.1: Students will use historic and modern case studies, including Supreme Court cases, amendment initiatives, and legislation to trace the application of civil liberties, civil rights, and responsibilities spelled out in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other amendments. 

U.S. GOV Standard 2.2: Students will examine various perspectives on a current rights-related issue; take a position; defend that position using the Constitution and Bill of Rights, historical precedents, Supreme Court decisions, and other relevant resources; and share that position, when possible, with relevant stakeholders.

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