Religious Tolerance: Teaching the Teachers

July 26, 2016

In June, educators from Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools made history when they completed an intensive academic study of religion. The course, which rewards MCPS teachers with three Continuing Professional Development credits, exposed teachers to the diversity of religious practice in the region and across the United States as a whole, while giving them the tools and knowledge to return to their classrooms in the fall, empowered to incorporate religion into their lessons and build safe spaces for all students.

The course, which features presentations by local religious leaders, academics and politicians, began with a dynamic Q&A session with Montgomery County Interfaith Community Liaison Rev. Kasey Kaseman and former Bill Clinton Press Secretary, now theological professor, Mike McCurry. The two shared their combined 80 plus years of experience as community leaders with our teachers to bring the information into their classrooms and better prepare our students to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. The remainder of the first day included lessons from experts on Buddhism, creating conversations around religion, the dos and don’ts of teaching religion, and how teachers can use children’s books, like (local Rockville, MD’s Hena Khan’s) It’s Ramadan Curious George. Day one included10 speakers representing Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, and Christianity and was capped off by a keynote from Melissa Rogers who serves as Special Assistant to the President and Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Ms. Rogers shared how important religious literacy is to President Obama and shared details of how vital the current administration believes educating Americans about the world’s religions is to the future generation. 

Subsequent days included visits to local religious institutions and presentations from distinguished speakers:

  • Temple Beth Ami. Teachers then received an in depth and new way to think of Judaism, that will enhance their own abilities to teach about Judaism either in world religions or within Holocaust literature.
  • Special Envoy Ira Foreman of the US State Department who had been tasked by Congress, to monitor and combat Anti-Semitism worldwide. Mr. Foreman shared chilling stories of the increase in anti-religious violence throughout the world, not only against Jews but of countless religious minorities. He forewarned teachers that if they did not help create a generation of citizens who would stand up to religious intolerance we will lose whole communities of religious minorities.
  • Lungar (lunch) was at our local gurdwara (Sikh house of worship). The community at the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation came out with over 40 members of their community cooking and serving a delicious traditional meal before performing a typical prayer service, which was led by our own MCPS students. The community shared their practices and traditions, like the turban and prohibition in cutting ones hair, and explained the impact these practices have had on both the boys and girls within our school system.  Many teachers openly shared how little they had known about our Sikh students before the day and how they now assured the mothers, fathers, and students at the Gurdwara that they would be more attentive to acts of bullying against Sikh students within their schools.
  • Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service hosted our teachers and shared scholarship from The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, The Bridge Initiative and the Center for Jewish Civilizations.  Susan Douglas, who has been a leader in creating curriculum on Islam for decades, shared resources and answered the questions that so many of our students are asking about what Islam is and its relationship to violent extremism. Teachers were then given excellent resources from the Bridge Initiative to share how to teach about Islamophobia and from Unity Production Foundation, who have produced over a dozen films with PBS, that teachers can use in the classroom.
  • Reverend Dennis McManus explained the history of the various branches of Christianity in a way that kept teachers laughing and engaged for three hours. 
  • Taking advantage of our proximity to Washington, we engaged with NGOs, starting with the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum and ending at the Center for American Progress. Three of the finest experts on religious liberty in America shared the importance of religious literacy, dialogue, and a deeper, more meaningful approach to teaching about religion in the classroom. The session was enhanced with the presence of the Hindu American Foundation and Kaur Foundation, two of the wonderful organizations that partnered with MCPS to create the course.
  • Bishop Gene Robinson joined the group for a screening of the critically acclaimed film For the Bible Tells Me So that takes an in depth look into the intersection of LGBT lives and the Christian church. Teachers had the opportunity to see the impacts, both positive and negative, that religion can play in our students’ lives while hearing from a key leader in both the LGBT and Christian community.
  • A Sikh lawyer on staff at CAP discussed the continuous legal equality battles many religious minorities, like the Sikhs, continue to fight.
  • We visited two of the most beautiful houses of worship in the nation. First teachers were exposed to the realities of Hinduism from two experts on the subject who addressed many of the false concepts in American textbooks before receiving a tour of the massive temple and another wonderful meal representing our diverse community.  We then ventured a mile down the road to expose teachers to the largest Muslim campus in the Western Hemisphere, the Diyanet Center of America. Teachers saw the mosque swell in size before Friday prayer and saw the many races and ethnicities that made up the Muslim community. Teachers toured the grounds and had final session inside the beautiful mosque built in the style of 16th-century Ottoman architecture where a retired MCPS administrator, Sharif Salim answered our teachers’ final questions.

In just a week, participants toured many of the world’s religions across our diverse region, exposed many deep topics, critical current events and learning more about our students in the process.  


Chris Murray, NBCT

Chris Murray is a National Board Certified teacher who teaches Social Studies at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (Montgomery County). Over the past decade he has taught and created a wide variety of courses while creating and facilitating a religious literacy professional development program. Chris lives in Rockville with his wife and two sons.