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Teaching about religion in public schools.

Although the principle of separation of church and state is a fundamental element of American democracy, found in the U.S. Constitution and nearly all of the state charters, it has taken a long time to be implemented and the task is still not complete. Just as the lofty ideals of the Declaration of Independence took generations to come even close to full application, so, too, has realizing the goal of church-state separation taken a long time. Yet there has been steady progress, a continuing ratcheting forward, and this country has enjoyed a greater degree of church-state separation than any other.

Over the years, a sort of pan-Protestant hegemony has evolved into a complex pluralism, much to the dismay of the wannabe theocrats of Pat Robertson's so-called Christian Coalition. So far we have been pretty successful in holding off prayer amendments to the Constitution, sectarian raids on the public treasury for parochial schools, and attempts to reenslave women to compulsory pregnancy, though the battles are far from over and demand our constant vigilance.

In this column, I would like to deal with a problem that is not well understood: the modest but growing campaign to get public schools to teach about religion.

Yes, the average American is woefully uninformed about religion. And yes, the Supreme Court has held, in dicta, that public schools may and probably should teach "about" religion if it is done in an academic, neutral, balanced way. While there is no public clamor for courses or classes about religion, criticism (generally of the self-serving kind) of the relative absence of such teaching has led California and some other states to move to require such teaching. Here is where trouble begins to erupt, for the following reasons.

Very few teachers are adequately or properly trained to teach appropriately about religion. There are no standards for teacher certification. I have yet to see a textbook on the market that is adequately balanced, objective, and neutral. There is an enormous potential for abuse, as not a few school districts have actually permitted in their schools instruction that is plainly sectarian indoctrination, as in a Sunday school class in a local church. There is no agreement among educators as to what ought to be taught. Do we have Pollyanna classes that describe a few religious holidays, list a few religious "heroes," and say a few pleasant things about the Pilgrims, the Quaker abolitionists, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Thomas Paine, Annie Besant, Avicenna, and Gandhi? Or do we also teach about the Inquisition, religious wars, persecutions and pogroms, heresy trials, terrorism, and the fact that, for every Christian abolitionist, there were many more who used the Bible to justify slavery? Do we pesent static pictures of a few of the "mainstream" religions, or do we also acquaint students with religious dissent, freethought, humanism, and religious liberalism?

Enter concerned Californian John B. Massen. Almost single-handedly, he has set up the organization Objectivity, Accuracy, and Balance in Teaching About Religion (OABITAR, P.O. Box 567, Burlingame, CA 94101-0567) and persuaded Dr. Gerald Larue, emeritus professor of biblical history and archaeology at the University of Southern California, to write a book, Freethought Across the Centuries: Toward a New Age of Enlightenment (Humanist Press, 1996).

Larue's book is an extraordinarily broad and comprehensive, yet compact, historical summary of Western, of Western, Eastern, and Third World religions, together with an introduction to the many historical and current varieties of freethought and humanism. Yet the book is far more than that. It shows the dynamic, evolving nature of religion and how freethought and dissent have influenced religious evolution. No author of a school textbook about religion, no curriculum designer, no school board considering offering a course or course unit about religion can afford not to read and use this book.

The book performs two important services. It details the difficulties of teaching about religion (and, as I see it from my standpoint as a former history teacher and full-time defender of church-state separation, if schools cannot teach about religion with sufficient objectivity, accuracy, and balance, they should not be teaching it at all). It is also one of the best possible arguments for maintaining a high Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.

Three new books published by Americans for Religious Liberty, while not potential school texts, are useful books to read when studying the religion in education issue: Myths About School Prayer by John M. Swomley, Home Schooling: The Facts by Albert J. Menendez, and Public Education and the Public Good by Robert S. Alley. (Each is available for $10 from ARL, P.O. Box 6656 Silver Spring, MD 20916).

Swomley, who writes the "Watch on the Right" column for this magazine and is professor emeritus of ethics at the St. Paul School of Theology, ably sums up the case against any school-prayer amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He shows that "those who seek theocratic rule will continue to use prayer as a political device to achieve control over the public schools. It will also continue to be used by politicians to distract the public from real issues such as health care, low wages, poor housing, unemployment, and other problems."

Menendez, author of more than 30 books (and whose articles have appeared in The Humanist), has put together an excellent summary of what is known about the phenomenon of home schooling. He finds that home schooling is overwhelmingly a conservative and fundamentalist movement, though there are a few humanists and Unitarian Universalists who also home school.

Alley, professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Richmond, Virginia, is a leading First Amendment scholar. This book, which appeared originally as a long article in the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, is a well-documented (470 footnotes) refutation of the disinformation campaign being waged against church-state separation by televangelist and political operative Pat Robertson and others of that ilk.

All four books mentioned in this column are good reads and excellent additions to the libraries of all who value religious freedom and the free mind.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Church and State
Author:Doerr, Edd
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1996
Words:1010
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