CORVALLIS, Ore. - American students may lag behind much of the world when it comes to learning about math, science and geography, but they are virtual Einsteins in those fields compared to their knowledge about religion.
The teaching of religion in the United States hasn't completely disappeared, educators say, but it may be the most under-taught - or poorly taught - subject in the curriculum of most American schools.
Many teachers either ignore the controversial topic for fear of political backlash, or resort to tokenism - for example, covering Judaism by including a single Hanukkah song during the annual holiday pageant.
"There is a noticeable gap in the inclusion of religious topics as part of a standard curriculum," said Barbara McEwan, an associate professor of education at Oregon State University. "Most teachers go into the classroom woefully unprepared to deal with many legal issues, including the teaching of religion.
"We are alarmingly ignorant of the laws affecting education," she added. "As a result, we make it up as we go. And, as a result, we get into a lot of litigation."
McEwan, a nationally recognized author in the areas of educational law and classroom discipline, said teachers can respect religious diversity while avoiding bias and tokenism. The Supreme Court has never mandated the exclusion of religion from American classrooms, she added, merely an advocacy role.
"I don't see how you can teach history and culture without teaching about religion," McEwan said. "Religion played a role in the Pilgrims coming to this country in the first place and, in part, motivated the westward settlement.
"Failure to include religion as an integral part of how societies define themselves would leave students with a shallow and very limited understanding of human history and cultures," she said.
McEwan has developed a series of guidelines for teachers to integrate religion and diversity into the curriculum. Published in a recent issue of the Middle School Journal, the guidelines focus on maintaining an atmosphere free from cultural and religious bias.
Most important, she says, is for teachers to integrate religion and culture into the year-long curriculum, and not to use Christmas - or other holidays - as the basis for a celebration in a public school classroom.
"We need to avoid giving students the impression that everything there is to know about Native Americans should be taught in November, or that everything there is to know about African Americans should be taught during Black History Month," McEwan said.
McEwan said that comparative religion courses are important, but shouldn't be implemented until at least middle school, and probably high school. Students at a younger age may be unable to make up their own minds about complex concepts.
Many educators prefer not to delve into the teaching of religion for fear of igniting controversy among students or parents. McEwan, author of a book called "Practicing Judicious Discipline: An Educator's Guide to a Democratic Classroom," said the Supreme Court is clear on what can and can't be done regarding religion in public schools.
"Some teachers like to share their own religious perspectives with students because that can be an effective way to teach," McEwan said. "The Supreme Court has a different opinion. It advocates a policy of 'wholesome neutrality' which says that the state cannot promote or prohibit religion.
"In other words, you can give a moment of quiet to students and some of them may choose to pray," she pointed out. "That's okay. But you can't establish a prayer time. It's all about providing students with choices."
Providing alternatives is why many public school districts around the country are forgoing Halloween parties and decorations in favor of "harvest parties" - in deference to students and parents who dislike the holiday's pagan origins.
"Some parents feel that's nitpicking, but when a student - especially a very young one - has to walk into a classroom filled with dangling ghosts, cobwebs and witches, it can make them uncomfortable," McEwan said. "And there are some families -Jehovah's Witnesses, for example - who don't believe in the celebration of any holidays."
And that is why the traditional Christmas pageant has all but disappeared from many American schools, in favor of "holiday" pageants, or "winter fests." That may not be enough, McEwan said.
"If you call it a Winter Festival and then turn around and sing 39 songs about Santa Claus and Christmas, then one song about snowflakes and one about Hanukkah, you still have a problem."