MODESTO, Calif. — It was a teacher's dream. One day while shopping, Sherry McIntyre, who teaches world religions at Johansen High School in Modesto, Calif., was approached by a former student who not only recognized her, but said her class had made a difference in his life.

"He told me that his family was together and someone had made a negative comment about another religion that was inaccurate," McIntyre said. "It was turning into a negative conversation when he stepped in and said, 'That's not true.' He then told me, 'I knew it wasn't true because of your class.'"

It sounds like a simple story, but for McIntyre, it captures the precise reason she is in her 13th year of teaching world religions at Johansen. "I always tell my kids that we treat each other with prejudice out of fear, and fear comes from ignorance. So the goal of this class is to replace your lack of knowledge with wisdom. By doing so we will remove your fears and hopefully prejudice will disappear."

America is famously religious, but also famously illiterate of religion. Only about half of Americans know, for example, that the Quran is the holy book of Islam or that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. So why is Modesto School District the only one in the nation requiring students to take a world religions course?

Not making the case

Part of the problem is widespread misunderstanding regarding U.S. law. According to a 2010 Pew Forum survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans erroneously believe that the Constitution forbids public schools from offering a course on religion.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, said courts have ruled that schools must be neutral, but that doesn't mean they must ignore religion. On the contrary, ignoring religion gives preferential treatment to a strictly secular worldview, he said.

Haynes, a leading expert on the issue of religious education in public schools, argues that all high school students should be required to take a world religions course. To him, it's simply a matter of constitutional neutrality, educational necessity and civic fairness.

In his book "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn't," Boston University professor Stephen Prothero wrote, "None of the classic events in American history — the Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution — can be understood without some knowledge of the religious motivations of the generals, soldiers, thinkers, politicians, and voters who made them happen."

Haynes concurs. "For better and for worse, religious convictions play a central role in shaping events in America and throughout the world," he wrote in Kappan magazine earlier this year. Kappan is published by Phi Delta Kappa, a professional organization for educators.

"For students to be given the impression in 12 years of public schooling that they can learn everything they need to know about almost everything, and learn nothing about religion, and be educated people, is simply a bad education, and it's unfair," Haynes said.

Fear factor

Haynes and Jennie Sweeney, who designed and implemented Modesto's course in 2000, both agree that beyond the constitutional misunderstanding, four fears make it difficult for public schools to implement a world religions course.

First is the fear of controversy. Most school districts are risk averse and administrators are keen to avoid lawsuits and community conflicts.

Second, minority religions and nonbelievers are afraid of returning to a time when the majority religion (i.e. Protestantism) dominated American public life.

Third, many religious believers are wary of an academic approach to religion, fearing it will denigrate their deeply held beliefs.

Lastly, teachers are concerned about teaching world religions because they've received little college training to do so and because they're under pressure to prepare students to perform well on tests that don't cover religion.

This fourth area is the toughest to get right, according to Haynes. "We're going to have to deal with reform of teacher education. It's the hardest part of the equation. I've negotiated agreements on the left and right and I've worked with school districts in all kinds of tough places, and this is the hardest nut to crack."

Getting it right

Haynes said the solution lies in looking at those few districts that have implemented a world religions curriculum. He mentions not only Modesto, but also Canyons School District in Utah and Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, both of which offer the course as an elective. In Haynes view, each of these districts "got it right" by involving parents and community leaders from the very beginning to develop a curriculum that mitigated the four fears mentioned above.

"I think everyone has to feel that they're going to be safe to come to the table and talk about their concerns and that their values will be safeguarded in whatever program is brought forward," said Kathy Zinger, who taught a world religions elective in Fairfax County and now teaches in Massachusetts. "I think if you do that and establish good community relations it can be such a positive addition to a program."

Sherry McIntyre confirms that this was the case in Modesto. "We had buy-in from day one. We didn't just throw this at the community. We said, 'This is what we want to do, help us do it right.'"

Neither Zinger nor McIntyre have had a single problem or complaint in a combined 30 years of teaching world religions to public high school students.

"I can't figure out why it's not being done more around the country," Zinger said. "Of course there are pitfalls and legal issues, but that's been true with a lot of different programs. Education has been brave in other venues. It's strange that there aren't more doing it."

Awakening the Academy

Haynes singles out higher education for much of the blame, saying it does teachers and society a disservice by not taking religious education seriously.

"I do think there's a prejudice in the Academy about religion," he said. "Frankly, in this day and age and in this, the most religiously diverse society in the world, America, it's extraordinary to me that we put teachers in public schools, much less administrators, who've had no exposure to this at all."

McIntyre echoes this sentiment, calling it "unfortunate" that training doesn't take place at the college level. Her preparation for teaching world religions came through personal study as well as training provided by Modesto School District. Modesto organized workshops with local religious leaders and tours of local places of worship and created a standard curriculum used by all of its world religions teachers.

Prothero and Haynes both believe that 9/11 was something of a wake-up call for American schools and see the needle moving, albeit very slowly. "We realized that we were ill-equipped to deal with the question of Islam because we didn't know anything about that religion," Prothero said.

"It turns out that religion is one of the major challenges in the world and in the U.S. today," Haynes said. "And it's the one that (teacher educators) left out."

Looking for company

For 12 years, Modesto has remained the only public school district in the country requiring students to take a world religions course before graduating from high school.

For her part, McIntrye hopes that doesn't last much longer. The idea is just too important.

"I tell my students, 'Don't tell your math and English teachers this, but this is the most important class you'll ever take.' They always think that's funny, and I'm like, 'Seriously, we have to learn to get along. If we can't get along, what difference does it make if we know who Shakespeare is or if you can add?'"

Thanks to McIntyre and many others, religious tolerance is now a part of the community culture in Modesto. Each year, multiple students tell her that world religions is their favorite class, and without fail parents come up to her at open houses and "Back to School Night" to tell her how glad they are that their child is taking the class.

"Hopefully somebody else will join us someday," she said.