WASHINGTON – Many scholars describe religious freedom as the foundation for all other human rights, but increasingly in America it’s under attack. That’s leading one group on a quest to educate the nation’s students.
“You know, if you look at the history of the U.S., there wasn’t a single challenge to religious freedom at the Supreme Court level for the first 100 years,” says David Trimble, vice president for public policy and education at the Religious Freedom Institute.
Today, of course, religious freedom is a regular topic at the high court. For the last few years, Becket Law has kept an index on American Attitudes about this First Amendment protection.
“Most Americans knew about the freedom of speech – that was popular. But less than half were familiar with the freedom of religion being protected in the First Amendment, so I think that there’s maybe a real opportunity for education on that issue,” explains Becket’s Derringer Dick.
That’s where America’s First Freedom Curriculum comes in. Written by the Religious Freedom Institute, the high school curriculum complies with national social studies standards and consists of five lessons written to supplement U.S. history, world geography, and political science classes.
A version for middle school students will be released this year and plans for elementary students are in the works. The goal is to arm next-generation leaders with knowledge about the one freedom that protects conscience, allows Americans to live out their faith, and makes the nation stronger.
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“We want to provide a pathway that encourages them to be confident, understand religious freedom, to talk about it, and to live out their faith in the public square. That’s what our founders intended and yet what I’m finding at all levels of education is a fear, an insecurity of talking about religion, but it’s obvious from our First Amendment the founders were not fearful about talking about religion or about placing religious freedom at the core of our democracy. We need to be talking about it in our classrooms and yet we’re not,” says Trimble.
America’s founders placed religious freedom at the top of the Bill of Rights. Countries that strongly protect religious liberty are more peaceful and economically stable which benefits all citizens.
Even if an education gap exists, Becket’s latest information shows Americans have good instincts in this area which is generally good news for people of faith.
“Ultimately, you know, religious freedom, no freedom really is going to be able to be exercised fully and vigorously if there isn’t some sort of popular support for it, right?” Dick explains.
Even when asked questions about controversial issues, Americans sided with religious expression.
“One question,” explains Dick, “was about a website designer who’s asked to host a website for a same-sex wedding, but that’s against her religious convictions and so she declines. We ask several questions along those lines, but we split the sample, so we asked one-third of the people the example we gave them was a Jewish website designer, and then one third it was a Christian, and one third it was a Muslim and what we found was about the same response. It was around 70 percent of people supported the website designer regardless of their religious belief.”
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Still, Becket’s index shows Gen Z – Americans 26 years old and under – are the generation least supportive.
Just 46 percent have tolerance and respect for different beliefs in God, which is one reason why some advocates feel they’re up against the clock.
“There seems to be a woeful disregard of fundamental principles of democracy, of fundamental principles of truth, and the critical role that religion and religious freedom play in society,” Trimble says somberly.
“If we lose religious freedom at home, if it’s compromised at home, then we’re certainly going to lose it around the world,” he continues.
The Religious Freedom Institute is now working to expand its curriculum across the board into public, private, and home schools across the country.
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