Episode no. 403
September 15, 2000
BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Coming up, the continuing controversy about
the place of religion in public schools. How can religion be taught
and expressed without violating the Constitution?
Unidentified Student: Help us not to be timid in...
Dr. CHARLES HAYNES (PhD; The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center):
Are we really offering a broad or complete education if we teach
students for 12 years everything they need to know about everything
and almost nothing about religion?
ABERNETHY: And the new Catholic seminarians -- many are older, a
large percentage are foreign-born and some are more tradition-minded.
Mr. TIM UNSWOTH (Author and Journalist): Economically, socially
and even intellectually, the whole complexion has changed.
ABERNETHY: Welcome. I'm Bob Abernethy. It's good to have you with
BOB ABERNETHY: The reopening of schools across the country means
renewed attention to reading, writing, arithmetic and religion,
the ongoing, often confusing battle over what students and teachers
can do about religion in school. There are federal Department of
Education guidelines, but putting them into practice in individual
schools and classrooms continues to be divisive and confusing. For
instance, a New Jersey court of appeals this week was so split on
a school religion issue, it cast a tie vote. That let stand a lower
court ruling that a teacher did not deny a first-grader's constitutional
rights when she refused to let the boy read out loud in class the
Bible story of Jacob and Esau. As Kim Lawton reports in our cover
story on the fourth R, the rules about religion in school, for students
and teachers, are often unclear.
Unidentified Man #1: Our Father, now we pray, take charge of this
KIM LAWTON: In Asheville, North Carolina, and in schools across
the South, local citizens are testing the limits of the Supreme
Court's decision -- organizing spontaneous prayers before games.
In Virginia, several students are protesting a new state law that
mandates a moment of silence. And in Chicago, a religious coalition
handed out 100,000 book covers with the Ten Commandments to students
returning to school.
Unidentified Man #2: Long before David Letterman, God had his own
LAWTON: The proper place of religion in public schools has long
been a thorny issue. In 1962, the Supreme Court banned state-sponsored
school prayers, setting off a string of litigation that doesn't
appear to be letting up any time soon.
Dr. VINETTA BELL (PhD; English Teacher, Enloe High School): Let's
face it, religion, politics, subjects like that, are so full of
conflict that some minor comment, some minor incident can explode.
LAWTON: For the past five years, the Department of Education has
distributed a set of guidelines to every public school in the nation.
According to the guidelines, 'Schools may not discriminate against
private religious expression by students,' but at the same time,
'schools may not endorse religious activity or doctrine, nor may
they coerce participation in the religious activity.'
Unidentified Student: Our God, help us not to be timid in school...
LAWTON: Students themselves may organize prayer gatherings in Bible
clubs on school property before or after school, but school officials
cannot be involved in helping to promote or organize the activities.
Unidentified Teacher and Students: (In unison) Congress shall make
LAWTON: Schools can teach about religion, but they cannot promote
any particular religious beliefs.
Ms. MELISSA ROGERS (Baptist Joint Committee): The basic rule of
thumb is a rule that the court had set out, several decisions ago,
when it said that the Constitution protects private religious expression,
but it prohibits government-sponsored religious expression. So the
trick is deciding where the particular conduct falls.
LAWTON: The guidelines have broad support from religious and political
groups on the left and the right, but actually implementing them
has, indeed, been a tricky business.
Dr. CHARLES HAYNES (PhD; The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center):
Municipal districts remain deeply confused and parents are confused.
Lots of parents -- or religious conservatives think public schools
are hostile to their faith. On the other hand, there are many people
who believe that any mention of religion in public schools will
lead to a takeover by conservative, religious people and the schools
will become dominated by religion.
LAWTON: School districts across the nation continue to wrestle with
the proper boundaries between religion and public education. Here
in Surry, Virginia, the issue is whether and how the Bible can be
taught in the classroom.
Wilma Brown has taught English literature at Surry High School for
23 years. She became alarmed when her students couldn't participate
in classroom discussions because they didn't understand the biblical
allusions and themes found in many great works of literature.
Ms. WILMA BROWN (English Teacher, Surry High School): Didn't have
an artificial sense of where the Bible belongs. I think that to
them, religion belongs in the church, and at school, it's not relevant.
And I think that education should reflect the realities of life,
and religion is a very important part of our life.
I've been studying the Bible for 19 years.
LAWTON: So Brown, who's also a part-time evangelical minister, spent
nine months developing the Bible as literature curriculum. Many
in the community supported the idea, but not everybody. Someone
anonymously alerted the national group Americans United for Separation
of Church and State, which sent a letter of concern to the school
Mr. BARRY LYNN (Americans United for Separation of Church and State):
In theory, teaching about religion in an objective way is permissible
in our constitutional system. The difficulty is most of the Bible
curriculum that we've seen are not objective and neutral. They,
in fact, are promoting a particular Christian viewpoint, generally,
of the Bible itself. As a consequence, it makes people very uneasy
who don't share that particular religious background.
LAWTON: Wilma Brown believes she could teach the course objectively.
Ms. BROWN: I have to be professional, and I know the difference
between teaching objectively from an academic perspective and proselytizing.
I know that we're not to promote any particular religion or to impose
my particular views on students.
LAWTON: Worried about the possibility of a lengthy and expensive
lawsuit, the Surry School Board has put the Bible curriculum on
hold for at least a year for further study.
Ms. BROWN: I think it's a shame that we have to stop because of
fears. I've been very frustrated, but I also realize that, you know,
the cause is greater than me. And I understand the fears in the
community, but I also understand the need for this course. And I
understand how we're depriving students of learning about their
biblical heritage, which is so vital in our society.
LAWTON: Many national organizations do closely monitor whether local
school districts go too far in one direction or the other.
Mr. LYNN: Religion is treated differently in our Constitution. It's
the one idea that government can't directly or indirectly promote.
I'm not chilling anyone's rights. All we're trying to do is to make
sure that the government does not promote religion in public schools.
LAWTON: The Becket Fund is a legal group that defends religious
expression by students and schools.
Mr. KEVIN HASSON (The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty): And there
are school districts that are so afraid of litigation on one hand
that they go overboard on the other and ban the Easter Bunny, for
example. It's necessary for groups like ours to come in and say,
'If you're afraid of litigation, you really should be afraid of
litigation on both sides and you should do the right thing. You
shouldn't bend over backwards to employ secularism.'
LAWTON: Because of the complexities, many school boards have been
reluctant to include religion in the curriculum. Charles Haynes
has been one of the strongest voices trying to convince schools
that they can teach about religion without violating the Constitution.
He trains teachers how.
Dr. HAYNES: On educational grounds, are we really offering a broad
or complete education if we teach students for 12 years everything
they need to know about everything and almost nothing about religion?
LAWTON: At Enloe High School, in Raleigh, North Carolina, reading,
writing and religion go hand in hand before, during and after school.
(Excerpt from rehearsal of student choir)
LAWTON: Religious clubs, such as gospel choirs, are part of the
Unidentified Man #3: It means that your life is filled with activities
such as praying, reading a Bible.
LAWTON: During regular school hours, Enloe High offers what it hopes
will be a model curriculum for two elective courses: the Bible in
history and world religion. School officials and students alike
believe there is great benefit in learning about the role religion
has played in history and culture and how it continues to influence
ANNA ROSCH (Student, Enloe High School): Wherever you go in life,
whatever kind of job you have, you are going to be interacting with
other people and you need to learn how to accept people, whether
you agree with them or not.
LAWTON: So far, the school has found wide community acceptance,
but officials recognize they are trying to strike a delicate balance.
Dr. BELL: As a long as a teacher is trained and committed to separating
his or her belief system from the presentation of religion as an
academic study, that then is not problematic. But we have to be
realistic. It is not always possible to separate one's belief system.
LAWTON: That's precisely the fear of those who favor a strict separation
between church and state. They worry about the rights of minority
religions and of those who don't follow any religion at all. Despite
the explosive controversies that do still erupt, Haynes is optimistic
that reasonable and constitutional solutions can be found.
Dr. HAYNES: We are moving, in many school districts, from battleground
to common ground, so that there is no question in my mind that public
schools can do this, but they're going to have to work at it.
(Excerpt from rehearsal of student choir)
LAWTON: I'm Kim Lawton reporting.
BOB ABERNETHY: At the White House this week, President Clinton held
his annual clergy prayer breakfast. It was Clinton's last White
House prayer breakfast attended by leaders from all faith traditions.
The topic of the get-together was more debt relief for poor nations,
an effort championed by Pope John Paul II and many other religious
leaders. Clinton reiterated his support, saying the U.S. has a moral
responsibility to help poor nations get out of debt.
BOB ABERNETHY: Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, it was a week of prayer
firsts. On Thursday, a Hindu priest from Ohio delivered the opening
prayer at the U.S. House of Representatives. It was the first time
a Hindu has been invited to substitute as House chaplain. And just
two days earlier, also for the first time, a Roman Catholic nun
gave the opening prayer. Both the House and the Senate open each
session with prayer, usually offered by the congressional chaplains.
From time to time, members of Congress nominate guest chaplains
to do the honors.
BOB ABERNETHY: Yet another round of Middle East peace talks resumed
in New York this week. Negotiators arrived just days after Yasir
Arafat postponed issuing a Palestinian declaration of independence.
Among the stumbling blocks to peace: the status of Jerusalem. This
week, 15 top U.S. Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders urged
President Clinton to push the idea that Jerusalem be shared by both
Israelis and Palestinians. The letter also chided the administration
for not paying enough to attention to Christian concerns over the
BOB ABERNETHY: In Poland, just outside the site of the Auschwitz
concentration camp, a poignant rebirth, the reopening of the first
synagogue there since World War II. American, Polish and Israeli
dignitaries gathered this week to dedicate the reconstructed synagogue.
The five-year restoration project was spearheaded by an American
who was disturbed by the absence of Jewish life and culture in the
area. There is no surviving Jewish community in Auschwitz, but visiting
Jews now have a place to pray and reflect.
BOB ABERNETHY: Growing reaction this week, pro and con, among both
Jews and Christians through a controversial new statement on Jewish-Christian
relations published last week. The document is called "Dabru Emet,"
or "Speak the Truth," and it's a public reappraisal of Christianity
endorsed by scholars from all of the four major divisions of Judaism.
"Dabru Emet" was written as a direct response to Christian apologies
for past mistreatment of Jews.
Unidentified Man: This is your Christian stance.
ABERNETHY: "Dabru Emet" was widely praised at meetings with scholars
and rabbis in Baltimore. The Institute for Christian and Jewish
Study, which sponsored the document, hopes it will open a new era
of interfaith relations. But some of the statements in "Dabru Emet"
and much of its language are being challenged.
Rabbi JAMES RUDIN (American Jewish Committee): The paragraph, which
is the single most important paragraph of the entire document, is
both inadequate and inaccurate, and that's the paragraph dealing
with the Holocaust.
ABERNETHY: "Dabru Emet" states that Nazism was, quote "not a Christian
phenomenon." Rabbi James Rudin wants stronger language reflecting
what he sees as Christian responsibility for the Holocaust.
Rabbi RUDIN: The Holocaust and the role of the churches and Christianity
in the Holocaust and leading up to it is the single-most significant
issue in inter-religious affairs, in Christian relations, and I
was disappointed and -- with this paragraph and that prevented me
from putting my name to it.
ABERNETHY: Other statements, such as the assertion that 'Jews and
Christians worship the same God and seek authority from the same
book,' have troubled both Christians and Jews. In the opinion of
Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, "Dabru Emet" fails to recognize
that Christians worship God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Dr. ALBERT MOHLER (President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary):
For Christians, our understanding of God is the Trinity. The Trinity's
not something added on to a basic understanding of God. It is for
Christians, the concept, understanding of the self-revelation of
God. And for that reason, even when we look to the Old Testament,
we do not see God the Father apart from the Son and the Holy Spirit.
ABERNETHY: Despite criticism of its language and theology, "Dabru
Emet" has been endorsed by many leaders from across the Jewish spectrum.
They call it a landmark statement on the relationship between Jews
Rabbi DAVID SANDMEL (Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies):
Our hope is that we will provoke a new conversation both among Jews
about Christianity and between Jews and Christians about the relationship
between Judaism and Christianity.
BOB ABERNETHY: Now the new Catholic seminarians. What kind of men
want to become Catholic priests? Physical stamina is one desirable
characteristic. In a recent survey in the Archdiocese of Chicago,
90 percent of the priests said overwork is a problem. That's because
the number of active priests continues to go down, even as the total
population of Catholics is going up. So who are the new seminarians,
and what kinds of priests will they be? Judy Valente reports.
JUDY VALENTE: Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago -- these men have just
been ordained priests.
Unidentified Priest: (Foreign language spoken).
VALENTE: Outside, they bestow blessings on family members and friends.
There are two signs of the times here. First, in a city of more
than two million Catholics, there are only nine new priests. And
of these nine, five were born outside the United States.
Mr. TIM UNSWOTH (Author and Journalist): Economically, socially,
even intellectually, the whole complexion has changed.
VALENTE: The priesthood is in crisis on several fronts. The manpower
shortage means heavier demands on priests' time and energy. Their
authority is challenged by a better-educated, more active laity
and their status has been diminished by scandals involving sexual
misconduct. In modern America, the priest has been described as
awashed in a floodlight of suspicion.
Father PAT O'MALLEY (Mundelein Seminary): The lack of respect for
the priesthood is a cultural thing, not directed at priests, individual,
but it's directed at this whole idea that men would give up everything
to go into the service of God.
VALENTE: Mundelein Seminary, north of Chicago, the largest seminary
in the country for diocesan priests. It serves the Chicago archdiocese
and 43 others.
Father O'MALLEY: We must develop personal habits of prayer across
time. It's a matter of survival. It's a matter of reflection. It's
a matter of ...
VALENTE: A few decades ago, virtually all U.S. priests came from
what was called the Catholic subculture.
Father O'MALLEY: Most of us had gone to a Catholic grammar school,
five years of high school, and so when we came out here, we had
a very reflective and very deep understanding of the church.
VALENTE: Among today's seminarians are many who have not even gone
to school in this country. More than a third of the 200 enrolled
at Mundelein are foreign-born. The average age of the seminarians
at Mundelein is 29. Gary Pennings, who will be ordained next year,
is 45. He had been a paramedic.
Mr. GARY PENNINGS (Seminarian): As I got older, I felt some kind
of another call, more than just the kind of service I was providing
as a paramedic, but a call to a special kind of service.
VALENTE: Ed Pelrine started the traditional way: going to seminary
in high school and college. Then he dropped out. At age 41, he is
Mr. ED PELRINE (Seminarian): People are looking for some kind of
spiritual meaning in their lives, and they're not finding it in
materialism and they're not finding it in their jobs, necessarily,
and they're looking for more. And I think that's what the priesthood
can offer people.
VALENTE: Jeff Njus is only 26. He left a Lutheran seminary and converted
Mr. JEFF NJUS (Seminarian): And to be in that kind of middle place
between the connection of God with other people is a really powerful
thing that I -- I'm excited about living my life in that place.
VALENTE: The fact that many today are coming to seminaries from
other professions, that they often come from other cultures and
that some are converts has created a contemporary priesthood that
is more tradition-minded. Surveys show today's priests are more
conservative on issues like celibacy and women's ordination and
less inclined to the social activism of priests in the '60s.
Father O'MALLEY: They don't feel as free to question things as,
say, we would in our time. They want something solid in their life
because, in many cases, there hasn't been much that's been very
solid in their lives.
Mr. PELRINE: My speculation is that a lot of them are looking for
some kind of a foundation in their life, and so I think they are
moving back towards something a little bit more traditional.
Mr. PENNINGS: I think it's good to be tradition-minded. I mean,
the tradition of the church is rich. Some new seminarians, especially
I think some of the younger ones, come in with a certain rigidity,
which isn't always good.
Unidentified Teacher #1: (To class) I think we've all had the experience,
especially with biblical text...
VALENTE: After four years of studying doctrine, ethics, canon law
and pastoral life and internships both in parishes and hospitals,
these men will be ordained.
Father JOHN CANARY (Rector, Mundelein Seminary): Just at a human
level, we look for a certain maturity and inner integration, a sense
of who they are, intellectual abilities, their spiritual development
and a pastoral talent, ability to reach out to others.
Father O'MALLEY: Sometimes when the men get out, they get so busy
doing good work, they don't pray anymore, they don't read anymore
and they don't get away on retreats anymore. And they don't see
spiritual directors anymore, not because they're bad people, but
because they're so busy. They're doing the Lord's work.
VALENTE: Thirty years ago, seminary enrollment in this country was
at 37,000; today, it is only 5,500.
Mr. UNSWOTH: Years ago in the seminary, you applied and you prayed
and you hoped that you'd be accepted. Today, a seminary rector meets
a candidate at the railroad station with a bunch of flowers.
Father CANARY: I think the assumption is because the numbers are
smaller, you must have less-quality candidates, and that's simply
not my experience.
Unidentified Teacher #2: The theme of the Imago...
Father CANARY: We have people who are -- today who are doctors,
who are lawyers, people who have been out in the professional world
and have proven themselves.
VALENTE: Aside from traditionalism, another trend is apparent in
today's seminaries, and it has raised new concerns about how sexuality
will impact the ministry of some priests.
It is no secret within the Catholic Church that growing numbers
of seminarians are gay. There are no hard statistics, but the rector
of a major seminary in Ohio has written that the priesthood is becoming
a gay profession. Tim Unswoth, a journalist and author, has written
six books on the Catholic Church. He spent 20 years in a religious
order as a Christian brother.
Do you think many seminarians are conflicted about their sexuality?
Mr. UNSWOTH: No question. I think they wonder privately, to themselves,
what their orientation is. I think many of them are doing -- are
sort of so wrapped up in what they're doing, however, they sublimate
that, and it doesn't emerge until years later when they're out in
the parishes and struggling and alone.
Father CANARY: I don't see a majority of the people who are moving
to the seminary today as homosexual in their orientation. The critical
question is, whatever their orientation is, how they are integrating
that into a healthy and chaste, celibate life.
VALENTE: The church doesn't condemn homosexual orientation. It does
condemn homosexual activities.
Mr. UNSWOTH: The church has this conundrum: As long as they're celibate,
what does it matter whether they're gay or straight? Well, it does
matter because it reflects on how they will live their priesthood.
Mr. PENNINGS: The few that I know that have made that -- revealed
that to me, I think, are outstanding Christian men. You know, I
can't read their hearts, obviously, but they seem to be celibate
men with a real desire to be good priests.
Mr. NJUS: We're all in the same boat here trying to find a way to
be celibate in a society that sometime is sexually saturated.
VALENTE: Amid the suspicion, the loss of authority, the overwork,
the loneliness, there is the perception that for those entering
the priesthood today, the calling is a strong one.
Mr. NJUS: What I look forward to is, in the morning, visiting the
kindergarten class and talking to them about God, and then maybe
going to a Communion service at the nursing home and seeing where
they're connecting with God, and maybe in the evening I'll teach
a prison catechism class.
Mr. PENNINGS: Probably the most important thing is presiding at
the Eucharist. To me, the Eucharist is the center of Catholic life.
And to be the minister at the altar is a humbling, but wonderful
VALENTE: The priesthood has endured several decades of crisis, but
these men say that has served to make this generation of priests
stronger and clearer about the kinds of shepherds to the faithful
they must be. For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Judy Valente
in Libertyville, Illinois.
BOB ABERNETHY: Finally, the world of biblical archaeology was deluged
by news of epic proportions. Scientists working in Turkey announced
the discovery of man-made structures under the Black Sea; possible
evidence, scholars say, of an ancient flood, which might have inspired
the biblical story of Noah's ark. The scientists speculate that
rising waters caused by the end of the Ice Age allowed the Mediterranean
Sea to flood into what is now the Black Sea. But the discovery is
not an automatic confirmation for biblical literalists. Scientists
date the Black Sea flood at about 7,000 years ago. Based on ages
and time spans listed in the Bible, scholars have traditionally
put Noah's flood about 3,000 years later.
BOB ABERNETHY: That's our program for now. I'm Bob Abernethy. To
find out more about RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, visit pbs.org
or America Online, keyword PBS.
As we leave you, more gospel music by the gospel choir at Enloe
High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.
(Enloe High School gospel choir performs)
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