Finding the right fit for religion and schools

Religion and education. At the dawn of the second millennium, throughout much of the world the two not only had an untroubled coexistence, but were more or less synonymous.

Even in countries where state-run schools existed, the bulk of the instruction was still done by clerics. That a well-rounded education included religious instruction was simply a given in most societies.

But in the 19th century, a major shift occurred as the torch was passed from church to state and the notion of universal public education took hold.

In some places, the transition did not create much of a rift. In Japan, for instance, public school children still routinely say Buddhist prayers as grace before a school snack, and the government helps to fund various religious schools. But elsewhere, observers say, a failure to comfortably accommodate religious beliefs in public schools could lead to a rending of the social fabric.

The relationship between religious beliefs and what is taught in schools has often been tense in the Muslim world, including the extreme case of the Taliban, the ruling group in Afghanistan that has been reluctant to educate girls and women. In European countries with official state religions, conflicts were initially less frequent. But today, as populations diversify, more students protest official religion classes.

In the United States, relations between religion and public schools are particularly strained. The situation here bears close watching, say observers, because the need to educate a heterogeneous society will eventually confront most governments.

"Are we going to find a way to have a public school system in this country?" That's the question that most troubles James Fraser, dean of the school of education at Northeastern University in Boston and author of "Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America." Unless there is a better relationship between religion and public education, he says, the future of the school system "is not a given."

Professor Fraser is concerned that in many classrooms, a broad array of religious beliefs are not treated with respect. "Every time Islam is put down in a public school classroom and an Islamic child is made to feel uncomfortable, there's pressure to form a separate school," he says. "Every time creationism is ridiculed and a fundamentalist Christian child is made to feel uncomfortable, there's pressure to form a separate school. Every act of disrespect adds fuel to the fire."

Those who doubt that a splintering could take place have only to consider the rapid growth of the Catholic school system in this country in the 1800s, and the ever more-diverse mix that American society is becoming, Fraser adds.

The notion that there was ever a time in the history of the United States when religion and education dwelt together peaceably is a myth, say those who monitor the subject. "We've never done it right," says Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "There was no golden age where public schools and religion achieved a perfect balance."

Quarrels over the subject began with the first Europeans to settle in America. While most agreed they wanted "the church" to take charge of instruction for children, which church was highly contentious.

Later, when the US was formed - with its radical experiment in the separation of church and state - it faced the challenge of creating a "civic religion" that could be comfortably taught in common schools. But right from the start, efforts in this direction lead to a profoundly troubling sense of exclusion for Catholics, Jews, and many Protestants outside the mainstream.

The famous 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," in which a teacher was charged with breaking Tennessee law for discussing the theory of evolution in a public high school, is sometimes pinpointed as the moment the debate went national.

But it was in the early 1960s that a series of US Supreme Court decisions ushered in a new era by declaring school prayer unconstitutional. In the wake of these rulings, some believe that many schools overreacted by freezing discussion of religion out of the classroom altogether. (As late as the early 1990s, for instance, some teachers were afraid to tell children that the Pilgrims had come here to escape religious persecution; some timid textbooks of the period referred to them only as "wanderers.")

In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration and a number of groups of different ideological persuasions stepped into the fray. The Department of Education issued a new set of guidelines in 1995, urging public schools to create a more friendly atmosphere for teaching and other activities that acknowledged various religious views.

President Clinton said at the time, "Nothing in the Constitution requires schools to be religion-free zones, where children must leave their faiths at the schoolhouse door."

Some have cheered the new initiative, which has been called "the third way" because of the path it tries to create between proselytizing and ignoring religion altogether. But others say the "third way" has yet to prove itself a working arrangement.

"We're in a transition period right now, and I would regard it as a slippery one," says Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of People for the American Way in Washington. "I hope that five or 10 years from now we'll say, yes, we've achieved a sense of what the appropriate thing to do is, but right now there's still a risk we may continue to go in one extreme direction or the other."

For some groups, Mr. Mincberg says, any effort to accommodate mention of religion in the classroom represents encouragement to move toward proselytizing in the classroom. But "in some parts of the country, it's like [the Supreme Court decisions about prayer in school] never happened," he says.

In these areas, Christian groups may also feel threatened by the prospect of losing majority status as an array of religious faiths spreads its influence in the US, Fraser suggests.

He agrees with Mincberg and Mr. Lynn that the country is entering into an era where the level of tension over this issue will rise higher than ever.

But at the same time, he says that with hard work, "we're going to weather this and get past it, and the end result will be a country that is more interesting, more tolerant, and a more exciting place to live."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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