Talking Religion in the Classroom ; Supporters Argue It's Key to Understanding Everything from Architecture

By Marjorie Coeyman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 1999 | Go to article overview

Talking Religion in the Classroom ; Supporters Argue It's Key to Understanding Everything from Architecture


Marjorie Coeyman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When it comes to religion, Jim Maechling's students can't get their fill.

"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 academic.

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. …

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