Religion in Our Schools

Article excerpt


Excerpted from A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Mark I. Pinsky. Available August 2006. Reprinted with permission of Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY,

Public schools continue to be a battleground for evangelicals, and not just on the subject of evolution. The issue of which books are fit for public schools can cut both ways, geographically. In Lake Wales, Florida, according to reports in the Orlando Sentinel and Lakeland, Florida, Ledger, the mother of a nine-year-old girl tried to ban six novels written by two-time Newbery Award-winner Lois Lowry from all Polk County elementary school libraries. Kristi Hardee, a part-time church secretary, said her daughter chose to read Anastasia Krupnik. When she found some "bad" words in it, she told her teacher, who then told her mother. Hardee called the book "vulgar," and at one point she said she checked it out of the library so no one else could read it (so much for the marketplace of ideas). In February of 2005, Hardee and her supporters, including her father-in-law, the Rev. Kenneth Hardee, of Lake Region Baptist Church, succeeded in getting the book removed from her daughter's Spook Hill Elementary School. The pastor told the school board that, while he realized everyone has rights, "I also realize that within those rights, we as Christians have rights." But the county school board refused to remove the other five books from elementary schools in the county. Jacqueline Rose, the senior coordinator for the county's school library system, opposed any removal, noting that in the previous twenty-four years forty books had been challenged by individual school library committees, and only three had been banned.

Far to the north, on both sides of the Delaware River, Christian parents claimed they were discriminated against in their children's schools. In eastern Pennsylvania, Donna Busch said that other parents in her son's kindergarten class at Culbertson Elementary School were able to read from their children's favorite books during "Me Week." But when her son chose the Bible as his favorite book, Busch was prohibited from reading four verses from the book of Psalms. In Medford, New Jersey, a first-grade student was not permitted to read to his class from The Beginners Bible. (The boy's position in that case was supported by a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge named Samuel Alito.) In other cases around the country, students claimed they were not allowed to bring Bibles to school and read them on their own time. Christian legal groups like Liberty Counsel were quick to come to their aid, with frequent success. The issue extends to higher education. Although California State University at San Bernardino allows religious organizations like Hillel, whose membership is limited to Jews, in December of 2005 the school's administration blocked a group of Christian students from forming a campus group because membership would be restricted on the basis of religious beliefs and sexual orientation.

Other issues in Sunbelt schools, where evangelicals are often the overwhelming majority, are more a matter of substance than symbolism. In 1993, in rural Pontotoc, Mississippi, Lisa Herdahl objected to a half-century practice of prayer, Bible study, and other religious activities in the elementary school where three of her six children attended. These included student-led morning prayers over the school's intercom; prayer meetings in the gym; prayers in classes before lunch; and Bible classes led by teachers selected and paid by local churches. Herdahl said that when she objected to school officials, she was rebuffed. One child was given earphones to block the sound, while others were escorted from class during religious activities. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, Herdahl brought suit in federal district court, where in 1996 Judge Neal Biggers Jr. …