Burlington County Times, July 9, 2001

Certain phrases memorized in school continue to bounce around my brain. One is the song we sang every year at Thanksgiving assemblies: “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing/He chastens and hastens his will to make known.” Another is the opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” recited to the cadence of a ruler slapped onto the teacher’s desk: “THIS is the FORest PriMEval/The TOWering PINES and the HEMlocks/BearDED with moss AND in garMENTS of green.”

I was required to memorize a lot more than the opening lines of both pieces, but other bits of knowledge (PIN numbers, passwords, zip codes, web addresses, phone numbers) have crowded everything but those few lines from my brain. Both poems were given equal importance in my public school. Yet the first is a Christian hymn, while the second is a work of literature which, while dealing with religious themes, is not a liturgical piece. These two pieces demonstrate the central issue facing teachers in our public schools – how do we teach about religion without promoting a specific religion? “Evangeline” does the first, while “We Gather Together” does the second.

The on-going controversy about the place of religion in the public schools has only become even more contradictory in the past two weeks through two rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the first, the Court found that the Milford, NY, school district, which opens its doors to community organizations after school hours, could not deny the same access to the Good News Club, a Christian missionary group aimed at school-aged children. Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas wrote in part that any organization that “promotes the moral and character development of children” should be allowed use of the school building.

I am torn about this decision. On the one hand, I am troubled that the school has opened its doors to a group whose activities, in the words of Justice Stevens, one of the dissenters, amount to “proselytizing religious speech,” and, as Justice Souter wrote, “blur the line between public classroom instruction and private religious indoctrination.”

On the other hand, is it the duty of the school to determine whether or not a group meets the court’s requirement that it “promotes the moral and character development of children”? It has been noted that the Boy Scouts of America and The 4H Club hold meetings on school property. But gay rights activists protest that the Boy Scouts, through their banning of gay scout leaders, teaches discrimination and intolerance. And animal rights activists argue that 4H Clubs promote animal cruelty by encouraging children to raise animals for slaughter. Many people, though, believe that those two organizations embody “moral and character development.” Whose views should be heeded?

And so I find myself in guarded agreement with the Court that the school cannot allow one group to use the building and not another. I am also concerned that a ruling to the contrary would have meant that churches and synagogues, which in our area regularly rent public school rooms for religious services, would no longer be allowed to do so.

The other case, which has local significance, is that of Zachary Hood, who was not allowed to read a Bible story out loud to his Medford public school classmates. Even though the story did not mention God or religion in any way, the teacher made a decision that it would not be appropriate for Zachary to read the story publically, and had him do so to her in private. In that way, he was not penalized for his views, but did not impose them on his classmates.

The court decided, without comment, not to hear the case, thereby letting stand a lower court’s ruling in favor of the Medford school district and the teacher. Some – including Newsweek columnist George F. Wills – had assumed that the Court’s ruling in favor of the Good News Club meant that the decision would go in favor of Zachary Hood. But the two cases are very different, and deal with different issues. In the first, the issue is whether or not all groups have equal access to a public building; in the second, the issue is whether or not a specific religious point of view has a place in a public school classroom.

I am glad that the Court refused to hear the case. I would hate to see us return to the days when all children, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof, had to learn Christian hymns – and had to learn them as hymns, and not as poetry. The line between the endorsement of a specific religion vs. teaching about religion is a difficult concept even for adults to comprehend. Which is why I believe the teacher made the right decision in the “Medford case.” And so did the Supreme Court.


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