Few topics in our nation’s schools—from K–12 campuses to higher education institutions—are as potentially polarizing as prayer. Some consider it important curriculum. Others see it as a violation of our Constitution.

It’s a fine line, says professor Bruce Grelle, between educating students about the world’s religions and promoting some over others in public schools. After President Donald Trump resolved at a January 3 rally at a Florida megachurch to take action to “safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools,” the director of Chico State’s Religion and Public Education Project was tapped by TIME magazine to lend a historical perspective to such comments.

During Grelle’s 30 years teaching in the Department of Comparative Religion and Humanities, he has studied the evolving debate around prayer in schools. Teaching religion in public schools is one thing, he said, but promoting it through prayer and practice is another.

“Schools themselves, administrators, teachers, are supposed to be neutral when it comes to religion. They’re not to be promoting it. They’re not to be sponsoring or organizing religious activities or practices for students to participate in,” Grelle said in the TIME piece. “But students, themselves, are free to initiate and participate in various kinds of religious activities.”

A landmark 1962 Supreme Court ruling banned school-sponsored prayer—even nondenominational—noting it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it represents government interference with religion. This historical reference lays the groundwork for discussions in many of Grelle’s courses, which include “Religion in American Public Scools” and “Theories and Criticisms of Religion.”

As polarizing as the discussions can be, engaging in educational conversations about religion has never been more important, he said.

“One reason is to understand basic cultural and historical literacy,” he said. “The argument is that you cannot really understand what has happened in history, what’s going on in the world today, without some basic knowledge about the world’s religions.”

Another rationale is that a better understanding of religion helps us be better citizens of a global society, Grelle said.

“We live in a very religiously diverse country, very religiously diverse world,” he said. “And if we’re going to live together on the basis of understanding one another—rather than just on the basis of caricatures and stereotypes of one another—we need some kind of understanding of the religious culture and cultural backgrounds of the different people that we see living with us side by side in our schools and in society.”

Bruce Grelle leans on a table.
“The most fun I have when teaching, is exposing students to diversity of thought,” said Grelle, who teaches courses like, “Religion in American Public Schools,” “Theories and Criticisms of Religion,” and “Religion, Ethics and Ecology.”

When California’s public schools adopted a new history and social studies framework in the late 1980s, Grelle, a recognized expert, was tapped to train local teachers through the Butte County Office of Education and Chico Unified School District.

“We began doing workshops and institutes on teaching about religions in public schools—the do’s and don’ts,” he said. “Things like, what’s the First Amendment legal framework that sets the context? And then what sort of content should you teach, which, of course, varies depending on the grade level.”

Learning about the world’s religions, Grelle said, has nothing to do with whether one is religious or anti-religious—it simply has to do with being educated.

“And that’s what our department, and our work with the schools, is trying to promote,” he added.

Grelle also works in his courses to make religion a backdrop to more contemporary topics.  “Religion, Ethics, and Ecology,” for example, explores different religious and secular worldviews to consider how human beings relate to the natural world. Grelle starts the class by encouraging his students to investigate contemporary attitudes about what it means to be human—and how humanity has related to nature throughout the centuries, including pervasive assumptions that the natural world exists only to bend to our will.

“It’s this idea that God has created everything for us for our purposes and for us to use as we see fit,” he said. “But then the other side of the argument, which we look at as well, is the teachings that human beings are called to be stewards and caretakers of God’s creation.”

When his students think more deeply about and appreciate these important connections with the natural world, this is where Grelle finds the most satisfaction.

“It makes me think maybe I’m doing my job,” he said. “It makes me think that this is absolutely crucial kind of work that needs to be done if we’re going to begin to get a handle on the kinds of environmental issues that we’re facing right now.”