Religion in the Classroom

GREGORY J. RUMMO

Religion's influence in the world is pervasive. Even atheists will concede this fact. Therefore, a well-rounded education must include religion from the start. "An elementary school curriculum that ignores religion gives students the false message that religion doesn't matter to people — that we live in a religion-free world," write Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes in their 1998 book, “Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum”.


"This is neither fair nor accurate," the authors continue. "Silence about religion also denies students the promise of a good education. If they are to understand the world they live in, they must be exposed at an early age to the religious dimensions of society, history, literature, art, and music. Without this foundation, they will be unprepared for the more complex and critical study of the upper grades."

During his first term, President Clinton made clear that he supported the teaching of religion in public schools. "Schools do more than train children's minds. They also help to nurture their souls by reinforcing the values they learn at home and in their communities. I believe that one of the best ways we can help our schools to do this is by supporting students' rights to voluntarily practice their religious beliefs, including prayer in schools," the president said. "For more than 200 years, the First Amendment has protected our religious freedom and allowed many faiths to flourish in our homes, in our work place and in our schools."

Clinton directed his education secretary, Richard W. Reilly, to provide every public school district in America with a statement of principles addressing the extent to which religious expression and activity are permitted.

These guidelines — titled "Religious Expression in Public Schools" — were sent out in August 1995. (They were revised in May 1998 to reflect the Supreme Court declaring the Religious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional.)

The revised guidelines, posted on the Department of Education's website, address topics such as student prayer and religious discussion, graduation prayer and baccalaureates, student assignments, religious literature, and the teaching of values.

"Public schools ... may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture: the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture) as literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries."

This may shock those who assume the Bible is forbidden inside the public school classroom, a misconception likely due to widespread misunderstanding about the separation of church and state. Public schools once not only tolerated but encouraged prayer. Students were allowed to read their Bibles. Generations of children read from the New England Primer, a textbook of prayers and questions and answers taken directly from the Scriptures.

Public schools also used McGuffey's Readers, compiled by Dr. William H. McGuffey. Essays such as "What I Live For" — which addressed God, heaven, and the spiritual dimension of people — were not a cause for constitutional concern. From their publication in 1836 until 1920, they sold more than 122 million copies.

So here we are almost seven years after the release of the religious expression guidelines. Why then don't we see more teaching of the Bible and religion in public schools today?

There are several reasons.

Religion is viewed as controversial by many who see it as only generating conflict between church and state. This often results in frivolous litigation and ill will.

In many instances, the religious expression guidelines never filtered down from administrators to educators, parents, and students. Consequently, most remain unaware of their existence, let alone of the breadth of religious freedom the Constitution permits in the classroom.

Also, many educators stubbornly resist the idea of incorporating religion into the public school curriculum. They believe that teaching about religious beliefs in any serious way somehow implies intellectual weakness or the acceptance of superstition.

"The roots of the problem are largely philosophical, a matter of worldview. Educators have come to adopt the view that our intellectual disciplines must be scientific, or at least secular," write Nord and Haynes.

It still remains largely the parents' responsibility to inculcate their children with a belief system, teaching them about God in the home. Moses told the Jewish people: "Drill them [God's Laws] into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest" (Deuteronomy 6:7).

Nevertheless, if the public schools do nothing to teach religion or act openly hostile toward it, they are tearing down what is being built up in the home while painting a warped picture of the world.

Nord and Haynes conclude, "We teach students to think about the world in exclusively secular ways. This marginalizes religion intellectually. ... The curriculum all but completely ignores religion as a live way of making sense of the world here and now."

With the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel's decision to ban the Pledge of Allegiance from public classrooms because of the phrase "one nation under God," we are left to wonder about the freedom to teach religion in public schools. Conventional wisdom says that the full 9th Circuit Court or the U.S. Supreme Court eventually will overturn this wrong-headed decision.

We can only hope so. Learning about a religious sense of the world here and now — in which a living God is actively involved in the affairs of people — would be an excellent lesson for students in the public schools to master. But this will never happen until educators are willing to accept the challenge.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Gregory J. Rummo. "Religion in the Classroom." The Record (July 18, 2002).

This article reprinted with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

THE AUTHOR

Syndicated columnist and business executive Gregory J. Rummo's new book, The View from the Grass Roots, is an anthology of his commentaries written about life in 20th- and 21st-century America. The Live Wire is Mr. Rummo's syndicated column, which appears Tuesdays and Sundays in The New Jersey Herald.

Copyright © 2002 The Record


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