School prayer: 50 years after the ban, God and faith more present than ever
School prayer was banned by the US Supreme Court 50 years ago, but there is probably more presence of religion in public school environments – through club ministries, classes, after-school and interfaith programs, and faith-based services – than ever.
(Page 7 of 7)
The experience of Modesto, Calif., helping to keep peace through religion, underscores this. It's a heavily Hispanic community with large evangelical Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Muslim communities. Since 2000, the central California school district has been the only district in the United States to make a world religions class a graduation requirement, says Haynes.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"It supported the safe school policy," explains Jennie Sweeney, then the district's social science curriculum coordinator. "We knew that the more knowledge we could give the students, the better they would get along with each other."
Students sometimes poked fun at a boy for wearing "that handkerchief on his head" or got their noses out of joint when a girl made excuses to not eat lunch with friends. As the class progressed, it started to dawn on students: the boy was a Sikh; the girl was fasting for Ramadan.
Talking about the basics of different faiths made it easier for students to ask questions and volunteer information.
"When 9/11 occurred or, more recently, the Boston bombings," Ms. Sweeney says, "we didn't have any problems with hostilities toward our Muslim students."
Across the country in New York, ninth-graders at Townsend Harris High School also learn about religions as part of a mandatory Advanced Placement World History class.
"I don't challenge whether Moses received the Ten Commandments from God or whether Jesus performed miracles," says history teacher Franco Scardino. "I ask the students to think through why this message takes hold and resonates. Or why monotheism evolves on the Arabian Peninsula in a nomadic society where polytheism is all around them."
His approach conforms with the 1963 Supreme Court decision that specifically encouraged "teaching about religion, as distinguished from the teaching of religion."
The ruling also approved the "non-devotional use of the Bible in public schools," which, Chancey explains, means "you're teaching factual material about what religious traditions believe." He believes all Americans should know the Bible and its influence. But, he cautions, "it is one thing to say 'Jews and Christians believe the Bible is inspired by God'; it is an entirely different thing to teach 'the Bible is inspired by God.' "
RECOMMENDED: Are you smarter than an atheist? A religious quiz
Analyzing the 2011-12 curricula of Bible classes taught in 57 school districts in Texas, however, he found this nuance lost in all but 11. Commissioned by the Texas Freedom Network, Chancey's study also reports that when sectarian bias occurred, it favored views associated with conservative forms of Protestantism. The bias, he says, can creep in through flawed materials – he singles out publications of the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools – or through teachers who simply lack the proper training.
Meanwhile, in Room 411 at Townsend Harris, Mr. Scardino projects a quote on a screen: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. Mark 12:17."
The week before, the 30 freshmen had teased out what tenets of Islam spurred Muslims in Baghdad to make scientific discoveries, create hospitals, and distribute books. In a future class they will discuss the role of faith in medieval Europe. But today, students of many faiths and no faith grapple with the relationship of church and state, unaware that they themselves are shaping that work in progress.
Correspondent Lee Lawrence spoke about this article and her reporting with C-SPAN on June 19.