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.