TOPICS > Education

Teaching Religion

April 21, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
REALAUDIO SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

MONK: When you have the human world that’s where we all are.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: This comparative religion class at a suburban Los Angeles public high school recently had a lesson on Buddhism taught by a monk.

MONK: So what did the Buddha talk about? He talked about why we suffer. He talked about how hard it is to be a human being. He said that that we are born, he said we get sick, he said that we get old, he said we die, and he said there’s nothing we can do about that. Isn’t that a bummer?

TEACHER: Other people have been persecuted. It’s not just the Puritans that were mean about religion sometimes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: 400 miles away, in Northern California, this fifth-grade social studies class was also learning about religion and its role in the founding of America.

TEACHER: You’re right because there was a law that had you to belong to the Church of England. You couldn’t choose to be another religion at that time.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Similar scenes played out every day in public schools all over California because the state is one of the few that requires religion be taught as part of the curriculum. Now the federal government has opened the door for other states to follow. In December, for the first time, the Department of Education sent new guidelines for teaching religion to every public school in the country. The guidelines came after years of talks between religious and educational organizations with differing points of view, but all 21 of those groups now have signed off.

CHARLES HAYNES, Freedom Forum: The Christian Coalition supports this statement, but so does people for the American way.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center helped write the new guidelines. He is a religious scholar who conducts seminars like this one for teachers and administrators on how to teach religion in public schools. He thinks the 1962 decision forbidding government-led prayer in public schools is one of the most misunderstood in the Supreme Court’s history.

CHARLES HAYNES: The court was trying to say that there is a place for religion in the public schools, but it must be an academic place in the curriculum. Just as we learn about all kinds of things in history, we also have to learn about religion, and the court said that’s what a good education should be. But that part of the court’s decision wasn’t emphasized and looked at. In other words, we spent so much time fighting about what we can’t do in public schools, we forgot to consider what we can do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Under the new guidelines, these are some of the things public schools can do: They may teach about religion; they may actively teach civic values and morals; they may allow students to express their beliefs in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments. They may also allow students to display religious messages on clothing, and participate in before- or after-school events with religious content like this meeting of the Muslim Club. But after years of fearing reprisals for even mentioning religion in school, some teachers are still nervous. On the day we visited Shira Lubliner’s class at Ayers Elementary School in Concord, California, she was teaching an American History unit on the Puritans’ persecution of the Quakers in the 1600′s.

SHIRA LUBLINER, Elementary School Teacher: Who’s doing the whipping? Jameson?

STUDENT: The Puritans.

SHIRA LUBLINER: Now isn’t this odd? The same people who left England for religious freedom, when they get to New England, they turn around and don’t let anyone else have any religious freedom. Isn’t that a strange thing? So in order to take care of that, have you a big problem here because if one group of people tries to make everybody else do it their way like the Puritans did, it doesn’t work very well. So we have a wall, and that wall between religion and liberty is a very, very important wall. It’s called the First Amendment.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Throughout the lesson Lubliner says she tried to be careful not to support any particular religious point of view, but she’s troubled. Even with new rules, she thinks there’s still too much room for abuse. In fact, Lubliner last year complained when her son’s fourth-grade teacher read the Christmas Story from the Bible to the class.

SHIRA LUBLINER: I think that the major problem that we have in California is that there’s– well, in the country altogether– is that there’s too much gray area, and I think that as long as we’ve got a lot of gray area, there are going to be a lot of problems, and people are going to have a lot of disagreements. So, for example, teaching about religion– well, what exactly does that mean? And, you know, my son’s teacher I felt crossed the line. In teaching about religion, when you’re reading Holy Scriptures, that becomes advocacy, in my opinion. But to others that’s– to her, clearly– it was teaching about Christmas. So how we define these things needs to be spelled out much more clearly.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: First Amendment expert Haynes says religious texts can be taught objectively and fairly.

CHARLES HAYNES: It can come up when you’re teaching world history or when you’re teaching American History and the role the Bible has played, and certainly that’s one way it naturally comes up. Other scriptures might come up as well. When you’re studying India, you’re going to study some of the Hindu texts and so forth. The other way is to have an elective in religious studies. A Bible elective is fully… Is permissible and may be constitutional if it’s done properly.

JIM MAECHLING, High School Teacher: Society, individual progress…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jim Maechling has been teaching elective classes in comparative religion at Peninsula High School in Palos Verdes for 30 years. The kids like the give and take of the class and the ability to speak freely about their views on religion.

JIM MAECHLING: What about the whole issue of religion itself– has it helped humanity. Helped society?

MALE STUDENT: Religion has not only helped, but also shown that it can preserve society.

FEMALE STUDENT: But on the other hand, religion gives people excuse not to have to think for themselves. They can just take this book of rules and go, okay. That’s good. I’ll do that. And so then they don’t have to figure out anything for themselves. That’s a serious downfall of religion.

JIM MAECHLING: When you hear somebody else’s idea and it may be 180 (degrees) from yours, you argue, you get a little of theirs, they get a little of yours, and there’s a struggle in your mind for truth, and ultimately that’s how you learn to make your own. That’s how you learn to make your own resolutions of truth.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Maechling thinks he’s teaching along tried and true constitutional lines.

JIM MAECHLING: It’s a school; it’s not a church. I don’t preach, but I really try to teach values. And to me, any society without values is in big trouble, and I think many religions are saying the same thing, but the point is, yes, bring religion into the schools, but let them all in. Either that or we’ve got… Or let’s keep what we’ve got, and is everybody real happy with that? I don’t think so. I think people want to talk about important issues.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The students, who come from many different religions, are Maechling’s biggest fans.

FEMALE STUDENT: I think having a class like this really helps, especially when you’re on a campus like ours. It just… You see someone, and they might be wearing, like, a veil, and you don’t just say, “oh, that person’s, you know, that person comes from the East.” You know why they do it, and you understand why is it that they have the beliefs that they do.

MALE STUDENT: The class, I think, it’s incredible. It opens your mind to so many… Presuming… Like, for a while, like, I was, I was more agnostic, and this was before the class. You know, I had a more narrow view of, you know, “this person’s fundamentalist Christian– oh, they’re bad people.” But now, now my mind’s open. I still don’t agree with what they say, but I’m more tolerant of what they believe.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And for some students, the course has opened their mind to other faiths. Lindsay Fox is a 17-year-old senior who has been raised Roman Catholic.

LINDSAY FOX, High School Student: Maybe I’ll end up deciding that I believe in Catholicism, and that’s the religion for me and it has been all along, and maybe I’ll find a different religion that I can more identify with myself and strongly, like, have my own faith in it.

GERRY FOX, Parent: See our way to a brighter day tomorrow.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lindsay’s father, Gerry Fox, believes Maechling’s class is a good thing in spite of the Doubts it has raised in his daughter’s mind.

GERRY FOX: Almost every religion has a core set of values, and I think with some of the problems we’re seeing in public high schools today, I think everyone’s in agreement that there probably needs to be more of that. So I don’t have a problem with that, I rely don’t.

MONK: I’ll ring the bell three times to start. And then I’ll ring the bell three times to end, okay?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lindsay says one of the highlights of Maechling’s class is the appearance of guest speakers who teach the kids about various religious practices and, here, meditation. First Amendment Center Director Haynes says the meditation class shows how even experienced teachers need guidance on how to teach religion properly.

CHARLES HAYNES: I think that’s inappropriate. We wouldn’t want the students to role-play the mass, something close to home for many Americans, or to role-play any number of sacred moments.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Communion?

CHARLES HAYNES: Or communion. These things are sacred to people. Just so, even if a Buddhist monk says its all right, it’s still a sacred activity, and it involves kids in a religion not their own, and it risks violating their religious liberty rights. It also risks trivializing the faith that’s being discussed.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Maechling disagrees. He says teaching yoga and meditation are secular activities.

JIM MAECHLING: This project is not a religion project. It’s not even a religious liberty project. At core, as I think you’ve heard it’s a civics project.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Haynes says he hopes the first amendment center will be able to expand its training seminars around the country and clarify what is and is not appropriate to teach.