The Church/state Fault Line in Public Schools Seeking Unity of Purpose, Public Education in America Is Still Learning

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BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE: RELIGION AND PUBLIC EDUCATION IN A MULTICULTURAL AMERICA

By James Fraser St. Martin's 252 pp., $24.95

After two student gunmen terrorized Columbine High School in Colorado last April, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia suggested things might have turned out differently had the Ten Commandments been posted in school halls.

When first-grader Zachary Hood brought in the Bible story of Esau for routine sharing in class two years ago, the teacher quickly muzzled him, prompting Zachary's parents to sue the Medford, N.J., school system.

And just last month, conservative Christians cheered as the Kansas Board of Education removed evolution as a requirement in school science classes, even as the governor threatened to eliminate the board.

If anyone doubts that the spot whereon religion and public schooling stand is troubled ground, 1999 offers plenty of evidence to set the record straight.

And as James Fraser makes clear in "Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America," a longing for "simpler" times - whether when God was welcome in or banned from the classroom - is wishing for something that has never really existed.

Fraser, a professor of education at Northeastern University in Boston, notes that schools were long considered appropriate conduits for religious and moral teaching in the United States. But despite that vague consensus, controversy swirled around the topic even in public schooling's formative stages.

In the 1830s, Horace Mann, head of the Massachusetts Board of Education and a Unitarian, infuriated skeptical opponents by saying that the Bible could be read in the public school system that he was shaping "without note or comment," while interpretation was left to the churches.

The Midwest embraced public schools and their evangelical Protestant foundations more readily. (Public schools made little headway in the South, Fraser notes, until after the Civil War, a result of class divisions and slavery.) Advocates insisted that religious elements of education would focus only on common ground, though books such as the popular McGuffey's Readers, Fraser says, further undergirded Protestant values.

Simply ignored were the viewpoints or objections of Roman Catholics, Baptists, and many others coming to America's shores during the 19th century. …