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Talking religious expression in our local public schools

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer
“As classes get under way, public school students across America will form religious clubs, pray together in their free time, distribute religious literature to classmates, share their religious convictions in class discussions and in many other ways belie the myth of the ‘godless public schools,’” Charles Haynes, director of the First Amendment Center’s Religious Freedom Education Project, recently wrote.

Religious expression and study has made a comeback in public schools, Haynes asserts, a slow, steady comeback over the past two decades, “owing to court decisions, legislation, and broadly supported guidelines issued by religious, educational and civil liberties groups.”

Haynes believes that an increasing number of public school administrators “understand and apply the First Amendment” when addressing the role of religion in their schools.

The subject of religion in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has recently arisen with the application and subsequent initial approval for charter of the Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School, a K-8 school that if given final approval by the state board of education will join the local school system for the 2013-14 school year.

The school will be co-managed by the for-profit, Michigan-based National Heritage Academies (NHA), which operates more than 70 charter schools across the country, including five in North Carolina.

NHA has faced litigation in the past for allegedly presenting creationism as a scientifically based theory and promoting religious activities. In 1998, parents of children enrolled in Vanguard Charter Academy, an NHA-run school in Wyoming, Mich., claimed their kids were exposed to “Christian influences.” A U.S. district court judge ruled that NHA’s moral focus curriculum did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The ACLU claimed though that as a
result of the lawsuit, the school discontinued
 practices that “promoted religion,” including praying in the classrooms; the display
of religious signs; allowing the distribution of religious literature;
providing a church rent-free access while charging other groups; and
organizing a teacher training that included prayer, religious music and a 
Baptist sermon.

Teaching religion
The Lee school’s charter application states that, “A Moral Focus program will equip students with the behaviors and attitudes they need to be successful in high school, college, and beyond.”

“Values are fundamental to a great education and will be an integral part of the curriculum at Lee Scholars,” David Palumbo, the company’s chief academic officer, told The Citizen in a July email. “Our Moral Focus emphasis is one of the central parts of the school culture at all schools operated by NHA.”

An early draft of the school’s charter application included a section on religious freedom and teaching religion that was removed from subsequent versions, leading some community members to wonder if an attempt was being made to mask an agenda.

NHA founder and chair J.C. Huizenga has at times made his views on education known.

“Relativism seems to have labeled the celebration of virtue as some sort of cultural bias that needs to be eliminated if balance and objectivity are to guide the pursuit of knowledge,” Huizenga told the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in 2002.

In 1999, he told the Wall Street Journal, “Personally, I don’t believe a gay teacher is an appropriate teacher for a child.”

‘Lost in the weeds’
“To me, it’s actually in any school’s interest, given the significance of religion, to teach students about the major philosophical worldviews in ways that are constitutionally permissible and educationally sound,” said Sam Chaltain, an education activist and former director of the Washington, D.C.-based Forum for Education and Democracy.

Chaltain said he believes the questions raised about potential religious undertones in the NHA curriculum present the community with a great opportunity to have a conversation about the role of religion in public education.

Schools often “end up shying away from religion altogether because they don’t understand it,” he said.

Chaltain believes there’s a middle ground, what he calls the “civic public school,” in which students learn about all religions and the role they play in how people see and understand the world.

Schools that take this middle ground, he said, “recognize that not only is it OK to teach about religion but that if kids want to explore those things, as long as those directing it are just creating a space to pursue whatever they’re interested in,” they should be allowed do so.

“If a Muslim kid comes and says, ‘I’ve got to pray five times a day, can I use your classroom when no one’s in there?’ it’s OK under the free-exercise clause.

“But if a Muslim kid comes and says, ‘I pray five times a day and think it’s pretty cool, can I lead everybody in prayer at the beginning of English class?’ that’s not OK.”

“We want kids to decide if they believe in one god, 30 gods or no god,” Chaltain said, “and the best way to do that is to recognize that one of the most central things we can learn about as human beings is the role religion has played in history.”

Chaltain observes that concerns today regarding public school curricula are predominantly focused on reading and math scores.

“Right now, conversations about education are divorced from conversations about learning,” he said. “When we talk about education, we talk about how to boost test scores, as though that’s a complete proxy for how we ensure how children do a better job of learning and growing.”

We don’t often talk about religion in curricula “because it’s lost in the weeds of percentile gains and third-grade math scores,” Chaltain said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Getting religion right in schools matters because getting religious freedom right in America matters,” Charles Haynes writes.

Questions put to the Lee school’s local board of directors regarding the proposed moral focus curricula and the religious language in the early draft of the charter application have gone unanswered. All requests to the board by The Citizen for interviews have gone unanswered.

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