Finding the Right Fit for Religion and Schools

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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. …