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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Should Schools Make Religion Policy?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

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Believe it or not, prayer has never been eliminated in public schools. I, for one, can vividly recall praying fervently on many occasions for a snow day to coincide with a math test for which I had not studied.

Up the road in Spencer, officials have been pounding away for six months at what they call a "religious liberty" policy to define what form religion may and may not take in the public schools - an exercise that they appear to see as something of a trail to be blazed for the rest of the state to follow.

I'm not certain what they think gives them the right to determine religious expression for anyone, but just as people are free to worship as they wish, I suppose a school board is free to hammer the table and make eloquent speeches on allowing God into the schools. Presuming mistakenly, of course, they ever had the power to keep him out.

Because last time I checked, religion was a matter of belief, faith - the way you treat others and live a good life. It's not found in a six-page policy paper.

Spencer school board proponents for such a policy would have us believe that practicality is the purpose - that the reason for having a policy is to cover the district's backside if a religion-related issue or incident happens in school.

Don't believe that for a minute. After all, the concept of separation of church and state is pretty clear. If public schools didn't want to get caught up in religion issues, they wouldn't be mucking about with this.

The real reason for the policy becomes more clear when you listen to its original co-author, outgoing school board member Barb Van Wyk. And by the way, that's the Reverend Van Wyk.

At the most recent public forum on the proposed policy, she noted how her son, in eighth grade last year, aroused uncomfortable input from students seated around him as he brought a Bible to school to read in his free time, and apparently wanted it sitting out on his desk during class, while peers suggested that it was not appropriate for that time and place - perhaps, not in terms that polite.

"Our students don't have to check their faith at the door..." Rev. Van Wyk argues for the policy. "It's separation of church and state. We've got to keep it out. But that's not what our founding fathers intended in the Constitution. And I don't think that's what we as a community intend..."

There. At least she's being up front about it. What the policy was intended to do was reverse separation of church and state - which is to pave the way for worshipping and teaching a particular religion in school.

She is right, in that our education system was never intended to stifle anyone's religious beliefs.

But here is the thing - a school is a school, it is not a church. It is provided by the taxpayers of the community - people of all different religious beliefs or none at all - to teach all children the academic skills.

A school is no more the place for a religious debate than a church is a place for a pop quiz in Algebra II.

For parents who desire an element of religious teaching in their children's curriculum, they have the option of a parochial school education. Nothing wrong with that, and I am one of the parents who make that choice. And that's the key thing - choice. Families in public school have not chosen it for its religious preferences.

If we are to open this school system up to expressing the particular faith of the reverend who first penned the policy or any other, are we going to be as eager to welcome in Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Rastafari, Unitarian-Universalism, Atheism, and all the rest? If we did, would there be any time left for math and reading?

Being religious is a wonderful thing, for a school-age student or any person, for that matter. Wise people have never tried to barr it at the school door, or take anyone's religious freedom away, but have just asked that the precious few hours available to teach children the academic building blocks be saved for that purpose.

Most area schools have done a good job of adding morality education to their goals without making school into Sunday school. The Character Counts program is a super example - encouraging students to respect, to care and to be good citizens.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Spencer school board, I would propose to you that religion has never been "checked at the door."

Weren't we taught that religion was about being kind to others, showing compassion, helping those in need, being honest and courageous and accountable, always doing your best even when it doesn't come easy?

I defy you to set foot in any school in our area and tell me you don't find that. In the kid who raises pennies to help feed the hungry, who stops a fight in the hall, who volunteers to tutor a classmate who is having trouble, who doesn't cheat when it would be so easy to download a term paper off the internet, who takes time to dance with the one who has no partner at prom. A million little expressions of faith, in belief in the good in their world.

Religion isn't just being showy with the Bible in a public place, or wearing religious slogans on your t-shirt or trying to convince everyone around you to believe exactly as you do in the name of "freedom."

Religious freedom is expressed in the way you live your life. Even without a "policy."

Not all religion is to be found in the church, any more than all knowledge is found in the classroom.

The public school IS a place of religious freedom - derived from the philosophy of freedom reflected in the First Amendment - to be a non-secular, place of learning for all. A school board has no right - and no need - to try to change that.

And kids, if any of you have found an effective prayer to stop a math test, let me know. I'd like to use it on the IRS.

Dana Larsen
From the Editor
Dana Larsen is the Editor of the Pilot Tribune in Storm Lake, Iowa.