Dalai Lama’s ‘Summit’ Stirs Debate For Schools

By Bess Keller — May 23, 2001 4 min read

They have seen the Dalai Lama, and they still disagree.

Sandy White, an aide to a state lawmaker from Vancouver, Wash., maintains that area high school students should not have been allowed to attend a talk last week by the exiled Tibetan religious and political leader. But Kathryn Wells Murdock, the legal counsel for the Vancouver school district, contends that last week’s field trip was entirely proper.

About 650 students from that district and a half-dozen others in southwestern Washington heard the Dalai Lama in Portland, Ore., where he drew about 8,000 teenagers to a “youth summit” arranged in part by Sharon Kitzhaber, the wife of Oregon’s governor. Organizers billed the meeting as a rare opportunity to meet a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and hear him teach about compassion and nonviolence.

But the trip stirred controversy in Washington state, particularly after seven state legislators protested the outing in a May 2 letter sent to local superintendents and widely publicized

The Republican legislators, including Ms. White’s boss, state Rep. Thomas M. Mielke, questioned the use of tax dollars and school time for the event, which they said was religious in nature. The lawmakers also complained the event came at a time when schools, they contend, are using concerns over the separation of church and state as an “excuse” to suppress the views and religious behavior of Christians.

A flurry of media attention followed the letter. And within a week or two, private donors stepped forward to cover the cost of busing students to the gathering from several districts, including Vancouver, where officials estimated the bill at $940.

Concerns Persist

At the time, Ms. Murdock of the Vancouver district expressed hope that the private funding would satisfy the critics.

But last week, Ms. White, Rep. Mielke’s aide, said the money was just the beginning of the legislators’ objections. She cited, for example, staff and student time that went into the trip. Even more, she said, her attendance at the gathering in Portland convinced her that the event was inherently religious.

“It was purely indoctrination,” she said of the Dalai Lama’s 40-minute talk, adding that it contained what she viewed as some disturbing notes of anti-Americanism, such as criticism of capitalism. “Everything basically related back to his faith.” The Dalai Lama is the high priest of Lamaism, a form of Buddhism.

But Ms. Murdock, who also attended the gathering, disagreed wholeheartedly with the characterization of the event as religious.

“He was talking about nonviolent ways of resolving problems and ways of expressing compassion and kindness,” the school district lawyer said. “These are not concepts that are particularly religious.” She said she could recall no mention of capitalism.

Ms. Murdock said that the 21,500-student Vancouver district carefully considered making the event part of the school day.

“You have to look at the presentation being given, not just the religious belief of the person who is giving it,” she said. “They must not be encouraging particular religious beliefs.”

“The proper role of the public school in relation to religion is neutrality,” she added.

Ms. Murdock also defended participation in the event as pertinent to students’ school activities. One set of tickets, she said, went to students who had been involved after school with PeaceJam, a national youth organization focused on learning conflict resolution and community building from Nobel Peace Prize winners.

“Because of seeing in the past the power and value of students’ interacting with Nobel laureates, I thought it would make sense to offer the opportunity to students,” added Kate McPherson, a former social studies teacher who coordinates PeaceJam-Northwest and helped Washington state students get tickets to the meeting. She said she believed the event would also be valuable to students in the Contemporary World Problems class, which has studied 20th-century China. In 1950, China invaded Tibet, and nine years later the Dalai Lama, its traditional political and religious leader, fled the country.

Christians Slighted?

State Sen. Joseph Zarelli, one of the signers of the protest letter, acknowledged last week that a decision about sending students to the event might at least be in “a gray area.” But he said it was typical of school districts that they erred on the side of exposing students to non-Christian influences while being intolerant of Christian practices.

He said that in his six years in the legislature, he had heard, for instance, of a student who was told she could not read her Bible at lunch, and of another who was kept from writing about Jesus in an assignment on famous people.

“Religious activity that is the most not tolerated is that of the Christian faith, and in other areas schools are more lenient and less questioning,” the lawmaker said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Dalai Lama’s ‘Summit’ Stirs Debate For Schools