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Diverse Groups Join In Effort To Promote Teaching on Religion

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WASHINGTON--After years of being at odds over church-state issues and on opposing sides in related legal disputes, a diverse group of prominent religious and educational organizations issued a joint call last week for more teaching about religion in the public schools.

The coalition, which ranged from the nation's two major teachers' unions to evangelical Christian groups, released a brochure that details ways religion can be addressed in the public-school curriculum without violating the constitutional separation of church and state.

There is "a new climate'' for establishing a foundation for teaching about religion in public-school classrooms, said the head of one group that endorsed the effort.

"Groups unwilling to work together before now appear ready to do so,'' Nicholas Piediscalzi, president of the National Council on Religion and Public Education, said last week at a forum here on religion in the public schools.

In its brochure, the coalition says public schools' inattention to religion has trivialized its significant role in history and society.

"Omission of facts about religion can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant,'' says the brochure, "Religion in the Public School Classroom--Questions and Answers.''

"Failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices, and concepts of the various religions makes much of history, literature, art, and contemporary life unintelligible,'' the brochure says.

The effort to put together the business-envelope-size brochure began about a year ago, said Charles Haynes, project director for the Americans United Research Foundation, an affiliate of the civil-liberties group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

"It went through about 20 drafts,'' Mr. Haynes said, as leaders of the groups haggled over wording on which they could all agree.

"We're not going to stop with the publication of this brochure,'' said Oliver Thomas, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee of Public Affairs. "We're going to try to put this into the hands of educators.''

The brochure addresses eight questions about religion in the schools, including the controversial subject of creationism, which it suggests "may be discussed in a religious-studies class or in any course that considers religious explanations for the origin of life.'' (See text box below.)

The creationism question required "the most nuanced answer in the brochure,'' said Mr. Haynes.

The brochure also discusses the relationship between teaching about religion and the teaching of values. "The former is objective, academic study,'' the coalition writes. "The latter involves the teaching of particular ethical viewpoints or standards of behavior.''

On the issue of how religious holidays should be treated in the classroom, it responds: "Carefully.''

"If the approach is objective,'' it adds, "neither advancing nor inhibiting religion, it can foster among students understanding and mutual respect within and beyond the local community.''

The brochure does not deal with such topics as school prayer or the access of religious groups to schools.

Several representatives of groups in the coalition appeared at a news conference last week to show support for the effort.

"This was one of the few times that the religious organizations and the world of education have sat down together,'' said Elliott Wright of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

'Religious Illiteracy'

In a written statement, the National School Boards Association said the coalition's document properly draws the line between teaching about religion and teaching "specific religious faiths or dogmas.''

The National Education Association, also in a written statement, said: "The separation of church and state demands constant vigilance. We must be ever watchful that the line that separates the two is never breached. On the other hand, our schools do need to teach about religion, a very important part of our cultural lives and historical past.''

Leaders of the coalition blamed the public schools' "religious illiteracy'' on a misinterpretation of U.S. Supreme Court decisions barring required prayer and Bible reading in the classroom.

In fact, in the landmark case banning school prayer, Abington v. Schempp, the Court's opinion encourages the study of the Bible or religion "when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education,'' according to the brochure.

Mr. Haynes said that only 18 percent of the nation's public schools offer any kind of course in religion. "Curriculum materials that teachers have to use seriously neglect religion,'' he said.

The brochure should lend some support to teachers, he said, informing them that there is institutional backing for such instruction.

"The average teacher is confused,'' Mr. Haynes said. "They wonder, 'Can I even mention religion?'''

The coalition would like to see the growth of religious studies as a separate topic in the curriculum, but the role of religion deserves more attention "wherever it naturally arises,'' the brochure says.

At the secondary-school level, this includes social studies, literature, and the arts, says the brochure. At the elementary level, "natural opportunities arise in discussions of the family and community life and in instruction about festivals and different cultures.''

Called Important Development

The coalition's brochure drew attention last week at a forum here on religion in the public schools, sponsored by the National Council on Religion in Public Education and the Committee on Religious Liberty.

At the forum, Mr. Piediscalzi of the national council said the publication of the coalition's brochure was an important development in the drive to encourage more religious studies in schools.

But he called for an even broader coalition of groups to continue the work of pressing for more teaching about religion in schools.

He said such a coalition would have to function on several levels and deal with many concerns about religion in the schools. For example, advocates of the cause "must deal with a fear by Jewish groups over Protestant hegemony on the curriculum,'' Mr. Piediscalzi said.

Diane Berreth of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development noted that textbook publishers, too, must be convinced that grassroots support has developed for more religious studies. "Grassroots, to them, are the textbook-adoption committees at the state and local level,'' Ms. Berreth said.

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