When Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura met with a ministry panel recently to discuss the inclusion of moral education for elementary and junior high school students beginning in 2015, he unwittingly stepped into a potential minefield. At least that has been the experience in the United States.

The problem stems from the thin line between morality and religion. Even seemingly universal values such as honesty and respect are often grounded in religious traditions. As a result, teaching morality, as Shimomura wants, invariably involves the risk of violating the separation of church and state.

A California teacher found himself sued for comments that a student felt were hostile to religion when he questioned creationism in an Advanced Placement European history course. A federal appeals court ruled in August 2011 that the teacher was entitled to qualified immunity.

But since then the suit has inhibited teachers from engaging their students in discussions designed to promote critical thinking.

Teachers in Japan could easily find themselves in a similar situation if the government introduces moral education. That’s because many parents believe that moral values should be taught at home or in places of worship outside of school. This is particularly so when the values of the majority clash with those of the minority.

Consider the pledge of allegiance the flag. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that swearing loyalty to any power less than God is forbidden. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940 held in Minersville School District v. Gobitis that a school district’s interest in promoting national unity superseded the religious claim. Yet, three years later, the high court reversed itself in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, forbidding a school from requiring the pledge.

The same principle was extended to teachers in subsequent decisions. However, in some areas of the U.S. today, there still is enormous pressure on students and teachers to recite the pledge as a way of inculcating patriotism.

What about atheists?

When the wording of the pledge of allegiance was changed in 1954 to “one nation under God” from “one nation indivisible,” atheists argued that this violated their beliefs.

Japan had its version of controversy over pledging allegiance when 172 Tokyo public school teachers were punished for refusing to stand in front of the Hinomaru flag and sing the Kimigayo national anthem at school ceremonies.

In March 2009, the Tokyo District Court dismissed their suit, which had alleged that the punishment was unconstitutional. But the suit was a reminder of the potential for controversy over hitherto sacrosanct issues.

Even in health and biology classes that are thought to be morally neutral, teachers and schools have found themselves in hot water over such essential subjects like sex education.

Are abortion or contraceptives proper topics? What about homosexuality? Can these be taught without giving offense to certain groups on moral grounds? If so, how?

Japan may prove to be far more fertile territory for teaching morals because it is more homogeneous than the U.S. Nevertheless, the nation is slowing undergoing far-reaching social change.

Schools are not hermetically sealed universes where students leave their attitudes and values at the campus gate.

One thing is certain: Japan needs to proceed with extreme caution. Good intentions are not enough.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the United States.

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