Religious Causes Arrive at School, Cause Conflict Battle's Been Waged off and on since '63

Article excerpt

For months, the nation's public schools have been like battlefields.

But the combatants in question are not vicious teens gunning to turn the pursuit of an education into a blood sport.

This time, the conflict, which has inflamed public school systems from Kansas to Kentucky to Altoona, Pa., is between religious conservatives who want education to be more reflective of their values and those who counter that public schools are no place for teachings based on specific religious doctrine.

It is a battle that has been waged sporadically since 1963, when the Supreme Court outlawed prayer in the schools, a conflict that has legal implications rooted in the Constitution's separation of church and state and that again raises questions about what role religion should play in the public life of a pluralistic society.

At the heart of each of these debates is the persistent perception that public schools are out of control, that students lack clear moral standards and that the proof of both has been written in blood during a spate of school shootings in the last 23 months.

THE ISSUES

"If ever there was a time to raise these kinds of issues, it's today," said Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the conservative American Family Association Center for Law and Policy in Tupelo, Miss.

Fahling said he was aware that the courts are cool to most efforts to inject specific religious viewpoints into public schools, which have a mandate to educate students from wide-ranging backgrounds. But "in light of Columbine and some of the other tragedies . . . the courts are not immune to the types of cultural shifts we're seeing in these school districts," he said.

That's exactly what worries some constitutional scholars.

David Rudovsky, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney, said that in an atmosphere of fear and panic the courts may be less willing to uphold existing interpretations of the Constitution that all but rule out public schools as a venue for the teaching of morals based on specific religious doctrines.

"The general proposition is that while schools can and do teach morals . . . a problem arises when a school board follows a particular religious persuasion," said Rudovsky, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

THE OPPOSITION

And while many traditionalists argue the Ten Commandments are valid for any student, in fact they are a product of a specific religious tradition.

An early opponent of the plan to post the commandments in Altoona schools, Rabbi Burt Schuman, said he found the move offensive because it would detach the scriptural teachings from their context in Jewish religion and history.

"I think sacred text needs to be treated with sanctity," said Schuman, of Temple Beth Israel, a Reform congregation in Altoona.

Rev. Gary Dull, who led the drive in favor of making the commandments available in Altoona schools, said it's possible that it may be just a first step. …