The church/state fault line in public schools

Seeking unity of purpose, public education in America is still learning

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE: RELIGION AND PUBLIC EDUCATION IN A MULTICULTURAL AMERICA By James Fraser St. Martin's 252 pp., $24.95

After two student gunmen terrorized Columbine High School in Colorado last April, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia suggested things might have turned out differently had the Ten Commandments been posted in school halls.

When first-grader Zachary Hood brought in the Bible story of Esau for routine sharing in class two years ago, the teacher quickly muzzled him, prompting Zachary's parents to sue the Medford, N.J., school system.

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And just last month, conservative Christians cheered as the Kansas Board of Education removed evolution as a requirement in school science classes, even as the governor threatened to eliminate the board.

If anyone doubts that the spot whereon religion and public schooling stand is troubled ground, 1999 offers plenty of evidence to set the record straight.

And as James Fraser makes clear in "Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America," a longing for "simpler" times - whether when God was welcome in or banned from the classroom - is wishing for something that has never really existed.

Fraser, a professor of education at Northeastern University in Boston, notes that schools were long considered appropriate conduits for religious and moral teaching in the United States. But despite that vague consensus, controversy swirled around the topic even in public schooling's formative stages.

In the 1830s, Horace Mann, head of the Massachusetts Board of Education and a Unitarian, infuriated skeptical opponents by saying that the Bible could be read in the public school system that he was shaping "without note or comment," while interpretation was left to the churches.

The Midwest embraced public schools and their evangelical Protestant foundations more readily. (Public schools made little headway in the South, Fraser notes, until after the Civil War, a result of class divisions and slavery.) Advocates insisted that religious elements of education would focus only on common ground, though books such as the popular McGuffey's Readers, Fraser says, further undergirded Protestant values.

Simply ignored were the viewpoints or objections of Roman Catholics, Baptists, and many others coming to America's shores during the 19th century. And indeed, despite those groups' growing numbers, a certain unity of purpose in the schools prevailed, fraying in earnest only by the mid- and late 19th century.

Fraser uses that moment to home in on a key point: Early American educators' failure to consider the diversity of faith set up many of the battles that have reverberated throughout the 20th century.

Fraser offers a highly readable history of education, including chapters on the African-American experience and the influence of immigration. He includes a detailed and timely discussion of creationism, taking readers through the Scopes trial of 1925, in which Tennessee teacher John Scopes landed in court for teaching evolution.

After Fraser's description of the federal government's growing role in education, prayer, and culture wars, it is hard to disagree with his final conclusion that "many issues about the proper relationship between religion and the schools are likely to be lively ones for a long time to come."

For one thing, an ever-changing population ensures that new viewpoints will continue to enter the fray. The expansion of education to include much more of the US population at the turn of the century, for example, helped fuel battles over evolution.

But, Fraser points out, an often deep-seated lack of respect between those who want a greater religious or moral presence in schools and those who draw a firm line against it has also caused sparks to fly.

What's needed, he argues, is the openness more characteristic of the multicultural movement in schools. If discussions can openly take place about racial and ethnic diversity, then why can't the same happen in the areas of religion?

Using a "teachable moment," rather than censoring, may ultimately be the answer that stills the troubled waters, according to Fraser.

After all, as he illustrates very effectively, grabs for cultural hegemony - no matter which point of view dominates - have not been able to sustain themselves, nor are they likely to do so in the future.

*Amelia Newcomb is editor of the Learning section of the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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