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Hillsdale Standards Complicate Teachers’ Lives with Establishment Clause Worries

The ACLU’s concerns about the Hillsdale social studies curriculum standards go beyond the exclusion of American Indians from K-12 content and consultation. The ACLU also indicates that the religification of K-12 social studies could lead to a court challenge on the separation of church and state:

The revisions now include mandatory teachings about Christianity in a number and manner that could violate the State of South Dakota’s Constitution and the Establishment Clause [ACLU of South Dakota, “Revised Social Studies Standards Perpetuate Colonialism, Discrimination of Indigenous Students,” 2022.09.14].

Yes, the Hillsdale standards do mention Jesus and Christianity. But they also mention Mohammed and Islam, and all of those mentions direct teaching of historical facts. The standards don’t explicitly promote religion; they are carefully phrased to refer to the cultural influence of certain religious figures and beliefs.

The ACLU’s concern about all those references to Christianity in the Hillsdale standards may not support a full-throated First Amendment lawsuit, but Harrisburg teacher Rob Sylliaasen notes that Hillsdale’s keen attention to religion in history introduces a new complication to South Dakota social studies teaching:

The faith terms that appear in these standards and teachers will need to teach: Jesus 5, Christian 37, Christianity 12, Jewish 3, Buddhism 3, Hinduism 3, Muslim 18, and Islam 3. The number of times these terms appear in the current set of standards: 0. With the adoption of these standards, teachers will see a shift in what and when they are teaching items. The faith terms that are in the proposed sets of standards are an example of an area that teachers will need a lot of PD [professional development] support to make them feel comfortable teaching on these items. Even with that PD support, I believe many will not feel comfortable and will open themselves and school districts up to conflicts/personal opinions as to how the faith terms are being presented in the classroom [Rob Sylliaasen, public comment, submitted to Board of Education Standards, p. 85, quoted in Dakota Free Press, 2022.09.17].

(By the way, the Hillsdale standards mention Mohammed three times.)

Sylliaasen is correct: the current K-12 social studies standards don’t mention any of those specific religions or religious figures. They do mention religion: fifth-graders are to “evaluate the influence, impact, and interactions of various cultures, philosophies, and religions on the development of the U.S.”; sixth-graders are to “analyze the development and cultural contributions including large-scale empires and major religions”; and high school students are to “describe the influence of religion in western political thought.”

But the Hillsdale standards tell sixth-grade teachers to explain to their 11- and 12-year-old charges that Christian’s believe in the Holy Trinity and that Jesus was divine and redeemed our sins. Most teachers will pause at the diktat to utter such words in their public classrooms (and more than a few will, like the sixth-graders, ask, “What the heck is the Trinity?“). Cautious teachers will say, “Sure, Dakota Free Press said the standards themselves would withstand judicial scrutiny, but I’d rather not go to court to prove it, and if I’m standing here in my classroom cribbing the Sunday school teacher’s lines on the taxpayer’s dime, someone’s going to sue me!”

So maybe the question is not whether the standards themselves violate the Establishment Clause. Maybe the question is, as Sylliaasen warns, whether Hillsdale’s religification of the standards will only create more work and worry for our social studies teachers without really improving instruction.


  1. Richard Schriever 2022-09-18 16:45

    In addition, when I first moved back to SD from CA, there was a story on the local TV about a teacher in the Sioux Valley (Volga) school district. Part of the story was filmed in her classroom. In that filming, she had students diagramming sentences on the black/white board. The sentences were quotes from biblical scripture. I was personally a little surprised she could even dare to do that and a little offended. Having a regained a clearer perspective on standard SD “culture” I am no longer surprised.

  2. Arlo Blundt 2022-09-18 17:59

    Richard is correct that “Muscular Christianity” of the “Onward Christian Soldiers” type often espoused by the Pentacostals is difficult to abide in the public schools. It’s always been incorporated into civics and patriotism instruction though I can’t recall anywhere in the New Testament where Christ is preaching violence and retribution. It is an artifact of the “McGuufeys Reader” era, post civil war, when our triumph over the Southern Rebellion was seen as a holy war to free men (all men) from tyranny. (Women were not yet part of the equation.)

    The rise of Christianity is an important part of the rise of Western Civilization and Christianity’s emphasis on the importance and autonomy of the individual cannot be ignored. It is a History written in blood. From it, emerged the Age Of Reason which we are currently trying to preserve.

  3. larry kurtz 2022-09-18 19:12

    Mrs. Noem did just separate herself from the Convention of States movement so her campaign believes it can survive in the national spotlight without it.

  4. P. Aitch 2022-09-18 19:15

    These are the Hillsdale Curriculum Schools in USA.
    Curriculum Schools
    Antioch Christian Academy (Mishualli, Ecuador)
    Ivy Classical Academy (Prattville, Alabama)
    Morae Classical School of Auburn (Auburn, Alabama)
    Candeo Schools North Scottsdale (Scottsdale, Arizona)
    Candeo Schools Peoria (Peoria, Arizona)
    Anthem Classical Academy (Fayetteville, Arkansas)
    Omni Classical Prep of Cabot (Cabot, Arkansas)
    American Legacy Academy – Severance (Severance, Colorado)
    American Legacy Academy – Windsor (Windsor, Colorado)
    Ascent Classical Academy of Durango (Durango, Colorado)
    Liberty Tree Academy (Falcon, Colorado)
    Tallahassee Classical School (Tallahassee, Florida)
    The Covenant School of Jacksonville (Jacksonville, Florida)
    Liberty Academy of Columbus (Columbus, Indiana)
    The Classical School (Zionsville, Indiana)
    Nyansa Classical Community (New Orleans, Louisiana)
    Bishop Baraga Catholic School (Iron Mountain, Michigan)
    Everest Collegiate High School & Academy (Clarkston, Michigan)
    Father Marquette Catholic Academy (Marquette, Michigan)
    Holy Name Catholic School (Escanaba, Michigan)
    Holy Spirit Catholic School (Norway, Michigan)
    Oakdale Academy (Waterford, Michigan)
    Real Life Christian Academy (Charlotte, Michigan)
    Sacred Heart Catholic School (L’Anse, Michigan)
    Saint Francis de Sales Catholic School (Manistique, Michigan)
    St. John Paul II Catholic Academy (Menominee, Michigan)
    St. Mary’s Catholic School (Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan)
    Waterbrook Christian Academy (Flint, Michigan)
    Classical Academy de Lafayette (Wentzville, Missouri)
    Lionheart Classical Academy (Peterborough, New Hampshire)
    North Star Academy (Wolfeboro, New Hampshire)
    Seacoast Classical Academy (Exeter, New Hampshire)
    Windham Academy (Windham, New Hampshire)
    Genesee Country Christian School (Geneseo, New York)
    Buffalo Academy (Greensboro, North Carolina)
    Millennium Charter Academy (Mount Airy, North Carolina)
    The Legado School (Willow Spring, North Carolina)
    Columbus Classical Academy (Columbus, Ohio)
    Northwest Ohio Classical Academy (Toledo, Ohio)
    Veritas Classical Academy (Marietta, Ohio)
    High Point Classical Academy (Larksville, Pennsylvania)
    Gardendale Classical Academy (Gardendale, Texas)
    Elizabeth Academy (Salt Lake City, Utah)
    Garfield School (Salt Lake City, Utah)
    Hampton Roads Classical (Smithfield, Virginia)
    Buffalo Christian Academy (Buffalo, Wyoming)

  5. bearcreekbat 2022-09-18 19:23

    Arlo, to refresh your recolection about whether the Bible indicated that Jesus preached “violence and retribution” check out Revelation 2:20-23 (New King James Version):

    20 Nevertheless I have [a]a few things against you, because you allow [b]that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, [c]to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. 21 And I gave her time to [d]repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. 22 Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of [e]their deeds. 23 I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches[f] the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.

    Although there are attempts by some theologians to assign these verses a completely different secret meaning, the Biblical textualist has to conclude Jesus was another advocate of “violence and retribution.”

  6. Arlo Blundt 2022-09-18 20:15

    BearCreek–I’m not any kind of Biblical scholar, but I pay no credibility to anything in Revelations. It is written 250 years after anyone who ever laid eyes on Jesus is dead. It is a political document attempting to resolve issues surrounding the Jews and Romans, and the four divisions of Christianity existing and competing during that period. I prefer to understand Jesus by reading Mark, the earliest Gospel, the only one actually written by an Apostle. Mark was also probably a relative of Jesus, knew his family, and was probably a native of Nazareth or the hill country nearby.
    Mark wrote only about events he actually witnessed, and conversations he heard.

    We won’t really know what Christ might have said until Q, a book written by Thomas, is unearthed. Ragged fragments have been found recently within the Dead Sea Scrolls. Thomas is another Apostle, a close relative, a brother or half brother. Toward the end of his life, after returning from India, he is asked to clear up some misunderstandings about what Christ said, and when. He wrote a straight forward account, starting each sentence with “Jesus said.” What he wrote apparently caused much discomfort to the Church’s fractured hierarchy. Two hundred years later, Thomas’s reputation is dragged through the dirt by the author of the superfluous Book of John, a truly political work incorporating popular fiction and myth.

    Mark had written his account and died before Thomas wrote Q. Matthew(or the person representing himself as Matthew) consulted Q and probably read Mark about 80 years after Christ’s death. The person or persons representing Luke, years later, rewrote Matthew and may have read Mark. It is unknown if he had read Q. It takes almost 400 years before the books of the Bible are edited and sorted by a Council of Bishops called by the Emperor Constantine at the urging of his devoutly Christian wife, Sofia.

  7. Kurt Evans 2022-09-18 20:38

    Arlo Blundt writes:

    I’m not any kind of Biblical scholar …

    That may be the only sentence in your comment with which I’d agree. You sound like one of those anti-Christian programs on public television.

  8. larry kurtz 2022-09-18 21:43

    Democrats would be foolish not to help the Republican Party rip itself apart.

  9. larry kurtz 2022-09-18 21:48

    Christianic religionism is the disease that will end the American experiment.

  10. Richard Schriever 2022-09-18 21:53

    Kurt Evans – Jesus commanded you to love your neighbor, not to love your religion.

  11. Arlo Blundt 2022-09-18 22:55

    Thanks Richard. Always interested in South Dakota writers.

  12. V 2022-09-19 07:00

    Read native written words or better yet, listen to the elders and scholars, to discover what REAL Christianity is. Elizabeth Cook Lynn is a good start, so go to the library and check out “The Power of Horses and Other Stories” or “Aurelia”. Christianity is not what you think, say, or write…it’s what you do. And religion is something that should never be forced upon anyone.

    In 1993, I started teaching in S.D. after having taught in southern Ca. I was shocked but pleased to see Houghton Mifflin textbooks of social studies and reading/language arts that were totally integrated and aligned perfectly with the national standards. Sixth grad ancient civilizations standards included history, economics, geography, and the 5 major religions. All of these to be introduced before diving into any part of the world and having compared any of this to our own traditional and popular cultures and personal world view. There was no emphasis on any particular religion because it was a comparative study. And the stories, writing activities etc. in the language arts book was rigorous work, it was educational to the max and fun.

    I’m sickened to see the politicization of public education to the degree where the whole environment is not conducive to learning for all.

  13. Donald Pay 2022-09-19 09:35

    If you are teaching history, there is no way around teaching about how religion and religious conflicts affected the course of events in the world. I’m not sure that requires a deep dive into theological issues, but it does mean students need to know something about what people believed, or at least professed to believe, and how that affected the course of history. In the US, Christianity was used to both defend and oppose slavery, just as today Christianity is used to support and oppose gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and dancing. Religion is really a pot. Anyone can piss in it, and most people do.

    As an atheist, I don’t piss in the religious pot, but I have no problem if students get some insight into the mess religion makes of history, I think Jesus, the man, is pretty neat, actually, and far superior to the idol that Christians made of him. Too bad Christians are the worst followers of Jesus, the man. I think spiritual traditions that reflect nature are fine, too. In fact, I like to take bits and pieces from every religion.

  14. Kurt Evans 2022-09-20 20:34

    Richard Schriever writes:

    Kurt Evans – Jesus commanded you to love your neighbor, not to love your religion.

    The commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself was handed down through Moses hundreds of years before Christ (Leviticus 19:18). Christ cited it as one of the two greatest commandments in the Mosaic Law (Mark 12:31), and the Apostle Paul affirmed its broad applicability to non-Jewish Christians after Christ’s resurrection and ascension (Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14).

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