When it comes to religion, Jim Maechling's students can't get their fill.
"I teach two [comparative-religion] classes each semester, but there's easily enough demand for me to teach [religion] all day," says the veteran California high school teacher.
Students' questions, Mr. Maechling says, are "penetrating, sincere, truth-seeking." Kids are eager to learn "about everything: life after death, salvation, moral and ethical questions, the devil ... cults - you name it, they are fascinated."
Yet courses like Mr. Maechling's at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in Rolling Hills Estates are rare. Maechling says he knows of only one other among the 860 public high schools in his state.
In fact, most educators in public schools tread gingerly around the topic of religion - or avoid it altogether.
As a result, "our culture is amazingly ignorant about the fundamental beliefs of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and even Christians," Maechling says. "A lot of bright public-school kids don't know some of the basic Judeo-Christian mythology. They don't know the stories and ... the values behind them."
But a growing number of individuals and organizations want to change that. And, interestingly, the forces uniting around the question of being able to discuss religion more freely in public-school classrooms represent an unusual mix. While many have religious affiliations, others say their concern is strictly academic.
Religious beliefs are often central to discussions of history, culture, and art both in the United States and throughout the world, they argue. Students who are not exposed to religious thought are not being given a well-rounded world view.
That's one of the reasons the US Department of Education is scheduled to announce this week the re-release of guidelines on the teaching of religion in US schools. The guidelines were originally mailed to all public-school superintendents in 1995. But this time -aiming for wider distribution and broader impact -the department will send them to every school in the US.
Additional materials are being sent in the updated mailing - a guide for teachers, a guide for parents, and a pamphlet outlining the role the Bible can play as part of a secular education. It's hoped that these will reduce fears and promote a wider role for religion in public schools.
For a number of years, religion has been "widely ignored or appealed to only in a crisis," says Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., the group that
developed much of the material included in the mailing.
"But this takes it to a whole new level," Mr. Haynes says. "For the first time in American history, a packet of information is being made available to schools to finally help them get this right."
The Clinton administration's original 1995 mailing was greeted with enthusiasm by many who support the return of religious studies to the classroom, but some grumble that too few copies made it past the desks of superintendents. There's not much evidence the guidelines were widely distributed.
"I think maybe 1 out of 100 [superintendents] ever did so," says Forrest Turpen, executive director of the Christian Educators Association International in Pasadena, Calif.
One of the ironies of the current situation is that when the Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that it was unconstitutional to lead public schoolchildren in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer, it was never the intent of the justices to ban religion entirely.
On the contrary, part of the court's decision at the time states that, "nothing we have said here indicates that ... study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."
And yet, say those who track such studies, fear surrounding the 1963 decision has had a chilling effect on even the mention of religion in public-school classrooms. Some experts estimate that despite the court's specific approval of the Bible's use in an academic setting, it is read today in only about 8 percent of US schools.
Helping teachers confront the issue
Evelyn Holman, superintendent of the Bay Shore United School District on New York's Long Island, says she sometimes has to laugh about the way teachers timidly sidestep any reference to religion.
She recalls a current-events discussion on a day when the pope was visiting the US. The subject was in the headlines and yet never came up in class. When Ms. Holman later asked the teacher about the omission, she said, "Oh, I would never mention the pope in class!"
That's why Holman has since asked her teaching staff to attend a special in-service program explaining how to teach about religion without violating civil rights.
"Public-school teachers think they can't teach about religion so they avoid wonderful opportunities in world history and literature," she says. "How can you understand the Renaissance without understanding what's going on in religion?"
In recent years, some observers have detected the beginnings of a thaw in the freezing-out of religion from public-school classrooms. Last month the Freedom Forum released its own publication entitled "The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide."
What fascinated some groups most about the Freedom Forum's book was the broad range of support it received. It was endorsed by both the country's major teacher unions, a broad array of both liberal and conservative Jewish, Protestant, and Islamic groups, and even liberal groups like People for the American Way, which actively combats assaults on the separation of church and state.
The American Civil Liberties Union did not officially endorse the Freedom Forum's guide, but ACLU president Nadine Strossen insists that her group warmly supports the efforts of Haynes and his colleagues.
Ms. Strossen acknowledges that encouraging discussion of religion in the classroom will probably open the door to abuses by some teachers who will not be able to resist proselytizing. "But that's not a good reason to keep people ignorant of what their constitutional rights are," she says. "That fear could exclude the most important topics from the classroom."
As a teacher, Maechling agrees. The religions of the world, he points out, represent "the distilled wisdom of the human race." And in the 30 years he's been teaching the subject, he believes it's never been more popular -or more needed -than it is today.
Still a delicate balancing act
But recent efforts to clarify religion's role in schools doesn't mean there's anything easy about the delicate balancing act school administrators continue to struggle with.
"Neither inculcating nor ignoring" is the way Richard Sprague, assistant superintendent for instruction for Scarsdale, N.Y., public schools describes his district's treatment of religion.
Some years ago the town was criticized for giving short shrift to religious holidays, but today its schools are praised for having carefully integrated the balanced study of religion into history and social studies lessons. It's not an issue in Scarsdale today. But that doesn't mean administrators feel complacent, says Mr. Sprague. "It's something you always, always have to be sensitive to."
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