Twenty years of teaching had taught Martha Ball to expect the unexpected, especially around seventh graders.
As she started a new job teaching social studies at Butler Middle School in the mid-1980s, she was prepared for whispers, passed notes and other acts of mild rebellion. What she got was the threat of a lawsuit and a cruel, taunting chant.
The class had begun with a syllabus explanation that included Utah Studies, or the unit in which she'd lecture on the Mormon migration west.
"I'd barely started when a student said, 'If you say that word Mormon in here, my dad will sue you,'" she recalled.
Before she could respond, another student jumped in. He encouraged the first student to leave if he didn't like the truth.
"Students started chanting, "Move out. Move out,'" Ball said. "I could see they were all hurting and angry."
Discussing religion often brings out the worst in people, including 12- and 13-year-olds. Faith is deeply personal and complex, and yet many public school teachers like Ball will stand at the front of classrooms this year as they have in the past, discussing the core tenets of Islam, Hindu scriptures and the religious background of "The Scarlet Letter."
"Any time we enrich the curriculum with religious studies, there's a potential for controversy," said Charles Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute and its Religious Freedom Center.
For that reason, some school districts attempt to avoid the subject all together, sidestepping opportunities to discuss the religious motivations of America's pilgrims or religious diversity in the Middle East. However, a growing group of educators is calling for more lessons on religion, not fewer, presenting religious literacy as the best way to address faith-related violence around the world.
"It is so important for students to learn about religion and be taught the basic foundations of major religions," said Jodi Ide, who teaches world religions at Brighton High School. "Education has the power to eliminate stereotypes, bias and prejudice."
By teaching on America's minority faith groups or the history of religious freedom laws, teachers can help create a world without faith-based hate crimes or anti-Semitic marches, experts said. But first, they need training themselves to avoid the type of shouting match that Ball described.
"We clearly have a distance to go to prepare teachers to (teach about religion) in a richer way, to do it in a way that doesn't treat religion superficially and, instead, gives voice to people who are actually practicing today," Haynes said.
Although religious affiliation is falling in the United States, religion remains a key driver of political and social events. The recent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, American military occupation in Afghanistan and the threat of nuclear war with North Korea all relate to religious history and theology, prompting ongoing debates between people of faith in the public square.
"It's pretty difficult to see how you can understand anything about contemporary human affairs without understanding their religious dimensions," said Diane Moore, founder and director of Harvard Divinity School's Religious Literacy Project.
Teachers can't be expected to provide an exhaustive overview of the world's religions in the context of a history or social studies curriculum, but they can train students to reflect on breaking news through a religious lens, Moore noted.
"The question of how to understand the power of religion in human affairs is central for civic responsibility," she said.
When students learn how to approach potentially controversial, religion-related topics with patience and respect, they're better prepared for the real world, Ball said.
"Students need to learn to be responsible for their words and actions. When they can do that around their most deeply held beliefs — religion — they can learn to be civil and respectful in their home, their community and in society," she said.
In a perfect world, students would begin learning about major religious traditions in elementary school, reading through Buddhism's Four Noble Truths and the Ten Commandments just as they might learn to count in Spanish, experts said.
Then, as students advance into middle school and high school, teachers could build on this initial foundation by asking deeper questions, while also showcasing the internal diversity of individual faith groups.
"As kids get older, they can teach them more about the role religion plays in history, like during the spread of Islam or Christian crusades," said Linda K. Wertheimer, author of "Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance."
But, while interest in using religious studies to enhance public education has grown in recent years, the topic is often left off the curriculum in favor of less controversial topics that are more likely to appear on standardized tests, Haynes said.
"Conventional wisdom in much of our curriculum through most of recent history is that students can learn everything they need to know without learning anything about religion," he said.
After her awkward attempt to prepare her class for Utah Studies, Ball turned to her principal for help. She expected some words of encouragement or tips for how to proceed.
"I told him what had happened and his words to me were something like, 'I don't want any lawsuits, do you understand?' That was very upsetting to me," Ball said.
The principal likely took the threat of a lawsuit seriously, since school administrators have long been trained to avoid risks. Each year, lawsuits pop up across the country over public school teachers mishandling lessons on religion and allegedly violating the First Amendment's prohibition against state sponsored religion.
As a result, many schools choose to avoid the topic altogether, while teacher education programs approach faith through the lens of potential legal action, said Kevin Burke, an associate professor in the University of Georgia college of education.
"To the degree that this sort of conversation happens in colleges of education, the limit of the conversation is what's legal and what's not," he said.
These discussions are valuable because confusion about what types of religion-related instruction are allowed in public schools is widespread. Only around 1 in 3 U.S. adults know that public schools can legally offer a comparative religions course, according to Pew Research Center.
The guidelines regulating what's possible when it comes to addressing religion in public schools grew out of the Supreme Court's 1963 ruling in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp. Justices said that ceremonial Bible readings and classroom devotionals violated the First Amendment.
Many people of faith were horrified by the decision, arguing that the justices were outlawing religion in all forms from public schools. In reality, the ruling recognized the value of studying the religious dimensions of historical events, literary works and other topics. More than 50 years later, the case is celebrated for its role in making religious studies a more prominent part of curricula across the country.
Haynes has been advocating for meaningful, legal engagement with religion in public school classrooms for around three decades, designing training programs for teachers and authoring national consensus statements outlining how to navigate religion-related conflicts. He said he's pleased with the progress that's been made, but also troubled by how rare it is for future teachers to study religion while in college.
"When they don't have a depth of understanding, they make mistakes," he said.
Haynes offered several examples of teachers stumbling into trouble by trying to keep things simple. One instructor prompted students to state that Muslims, Jews and Christians worship the same God, a conclusion that's true in some sense but also the source of centuries of theological debates.
"When you have a kid just fill in the blank, it wipes away all of these nuances and issues that are deeply divisive and emotional for people," Haynes said.
For years, efforts to improve religion-related teacher training have been bogged down by a lack of interest and legal misunderstandings. However, new curriculum guidelines from the National Council for the Social Studies may provide some much-needed momentum to ensure that future teachers start thinking about faith during their undergraduate education.
The guidelines describe the study of religion as a critical step toward "decreasing religious illiteracy and the bigotry and prejudice it fuels." They encourage schools to find more opportunities to address religion in social studies lessons, suggesting questions like "How did the Great Recession affect religious life in the United States and the world?"
"This is the document saying what's important for teachers to consider in the social studies curriculum. Adding religion as a core competency moves the discussion forward on why religion is part of a good education," Haynes said.
After Ball's disheartening conversation with her principal, she set out to improve her religious understanding on her own. She went to her school's library, but found few religion-related resources. The most promising was a Time Life series on World Religions. However, its copyright was in the 1950s.
Gradually, Ball was able to make connections with faith leaders in the Salt Lake City area and take advantage of faith-related teacher trainings taking place in Utah. The process took more time and energy than most teachers would be willing to give, so Ball and others have focused in recent years on developing shortcuts.
A variety of new tools seek to help teachers prepare lesson plans and answer tough questions from parents — two additional roadblocks to boosting religious studies, Wertheimer said.
"Many teachers are just trying to figure out where they can get great resources on Sikhism, Islam, Judaism and even Christianity to some extent or how to confront parental concerns that they're even teaching about religion in the first place," she said.
Haynes' organization, the Religious Freedom Center, publishes pamphlets explaining how to teach religion within the limits of the law. Faith-related lessons cannot be devotional in nature, meaning that teachers should be focused on boosting understanding, not spirituality.
The center also provides lesson plan suggestions, seeking to bring more depth to lessons on religious identity and religious freedom. Ide said she draws on this information for her world religions class.
"The center has excellent resources for students, teachers and parents," she said.
Curriculum suggestions and religion-related training are also available through Moore's Religious Literacy Project, which will soon launch a "For Educators" section on its website.
"That is going to be the entry-point for teachers whether they're teaching courses focused on religion or teaching about it in the context of other kinds of classes," said Lauren Kerby, the religious literacy and the professions research assistant for the organization.
Resources like these help teachers avoid conflict and focus on expanding religion-related offerings.
Seth Brady, a social studies teacher at Naperville Central High School in Illinois, said around 40 percent of the 3,000 students at his school voluntarily take his comparative religions course. He's drawn on the Religious Literacy Project, Religious Freedom Center and his own academic background to create an environment in which curiosity is more common than controversy.
"I think in 13 years I've had one meeting with a parent about something that occurred that they had a question about," he said. "(The situation) was quickly resolved."
Brady and a team of other teachers co-authored the new curriculum guidelines from the National Council for the Social Studies, and they've been pointing other educators to the growing number of religion-related resources available online.
"As opposed to 10 years ago, there are great resources out there that are inexpensive and easy to get ahold of," he said.
Ball is retired now, but she still meets with aspiring teachers to help calm their fears about teaching about faith. She's well aware of what can go wrong, and she's an expert on what can go right, too.
"I still get notes every now and then saying, 'Thank you. Religion was the most important thing we learned,'" Ball said.