When it comes to religion, Jim Maechling's students can't get
"I teach two [comparative-religion] classes each semester, but
there's easily enough demand for me to teach [religion] all day,"
says the veteran California high school teacher.
Students' questions, Mr. Maechling says, are "penetrating,
sincere, truth-seeking." Kids are eager to learn "about everything:
life after death, salvation, moral and ethical questions, the devil
... cults - you name it, they are fascinated."
Yet courses like Mr. Maechling's at Palos Verdes Peninsula High
School in Rolling Hills Estates are rare. Maechling says he knows of
only one other among the 860 public high schools in his state.
In fact, most educators in public schools tread gingerly around
the topic of religion - or avoid it altogether.
As a result, "our culture is amazingly ignorant about the
fundamental beliefs of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and even
Christians," Maechling says. "A lot of bright public-school kids
don't know some of the basic Judeo-Christian mythology. They don't
know the stories and ... the values behind them."
But a growing number of individuals and organizations want to
change that. And, interestingly, the forces uniting around the
question of being able to discuss religion more freely in public-
school classrooms represent an unusual mix. While many have
religious affiliations, others say their concern is strictly
Religious beliefs are often central to discussions of history,
culture, and art both in the United States and throughout the world,
they argue. Students who are not exposed to religious thought are
not being given a well-rounded world view.
That's one of the reasons the US Department of Education is
scheduled to announce this week the re-release of guidelines on the
teaching of religion in US schools. The guidelines were originally
mailed to all public-school superintendents in 1995. But this time -
aiming for wider distribution and broader impact -the department
will send them to every school in the US.
Additional materials are being sent in the updated mailing - a
guide for teachers, a guide for parents, and a pamphlet outlining
the role the Bible can play as part of a secular education. It's
hoped that these will reduce fears and promote a wider role for
religion in public schools.
For a number of years, religion has been "widely ignored or
appealed to only in a crisis," says Charles Haynes, a senior scholar
at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt
University in Nashville, Tenn., the group that
developed much of the material included in the mailing.
"But this takes it to a whole new level," Mr. Haynes says. "For
the first time in American history, a packet of information is being
made available to schools to finally help them get this right."
The Clinton administration's original 1995 mailing was greeted
with enthusiasm by many who support the return of religious studies
to the classroom, but some grumble that too few copies made it past
the desks of superintendents. There's not much evidence the
guidelines were widely distributed.
"I think maybe 1 out of 100 [superintendents] ever did so," says
Forrest Turpen, executive director of the Christian Educators
Association International in Pasadena, Calif.
One of the ironies of the current situation is that when the
Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that it was unconstitutional to lead
public schoolchildren in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer, it was
never the intent of the justices to ban religion entirely.
On the contrary, part of the court's decision at the time states
that, "nothing we have said here indicates that ... study of the
Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a
secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with
the First Amendment. …