School-Prayer Issues Said More Complex 20 Years After Schempp
Indianapolis--A group of educators, meeting here to mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision outlawing organized prayer and Bible readings in public schools, concluded that the debate over religion in public schools has entered a complex stage requiring greater caution and sensitivity than ever by schools.
Members of the National Council on Religion and Public Education said at the three-day conference that in the years since the Supreme Court decided the cases of Abington v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett, the U.S. and other countries have entered a period of religious revival.
That revival, the members said, serves as evidence that religion can thrive in a secular state, despite predictions after Schempp-Murray that the curtailment of public devotional exercises would cripple religion.
The ncrpe, started in 1971, has 16 member institutions and about 75 individual members, according to an official of the organization. The organization's purpose is to study "educationally and constitutionally appropriate" means of teaching religion in public schools.
In the Schempp-Murray decision, the Court struck down morning devotional exercises in public schools in Abington Township, Pa., and Baltimore. Prior to the decision, students in Abington were required to recite 10 Bible verses each day, and in Baltimore schools they were required to read Bible chapters and recite the Lord's Prayer.
In the opinion, Justice Tom Clark wrote that while schools could not sponsor practices promoting a religion, such as organized prayer, they should teach children about religion. "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religions or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization," he wrote.
The decision was followed by vociferous and prolonged protest in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures, but efforts to nullify the decision through constitutional amendments failed. Reports indicate that school districts' responses to the de-cision have varied considerably by size and region of the country.
Mary Mitchell, assistant professor of law at Indiana University, said the Schempp-Murray ban on religious ceremonies was proper. But Ms. Mitchell said she feared that some schools have created a "hidden curriculum," in which the content is subtly antagonistic, rather than neutral, toward religion. She said parents have a legitimate concern when they ask whether the teaching of evolution affects a child's "answers to the ultimate questions" of religion.
In their effort to comply with the ban on devotional exercises, contended James C. Carper, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Mississippi State University, many school administrators and civic activists have gone too far. One example of such "secular extremism," he said, is the current dispute over the existence of an after-school religious club in a Williamsport, Pa., school. Whether the club may continue to meet on school premises is at issue in a case now pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
The religious revival in the U.S., Mr. Carper said, could lead to a major increase in the number of students who attend private schools. He predicted that the proportion of school-age children enrolled in private schools would increase from about 11 percent to 15 percent between now and 1990.
But if public schools approach religious issues responsibly, Mr. Carper added, they might be able to retain some of the religious conservatives who felt threatened by the Schempp-Murray decision. Families that have already left the public schools for church-affiliated schools are not likely to return, Mr. Carper said. But the evangelical movement is "maturing," he added, and schools that incorporate responsible study of religions in the curriculum could defuse the controversy over the place of religion in public institutions.
The only way public schools can deal permissibly with religion, members of the council said, is to teach about major religions but to strictly forbid organized devotional exercises. Such an approach was considered nearly impossible as recently as 10 years ago, they said, but is feasible today.
Lee Smith and Wes Bodin, teach-ers at St. Louis Park High School near Minneapolis, said a 1971 confrontation over the elimination of religious celebrations in local schools led their district to start a course in comparative religions. But the course materials and teacher training then available, they said, were of poor quality or unsuitable.
Mr. Smith said he surveyed religious-studies literature in 1973 and found "no good material." Most books and articles then available, he said, were sectarian, too academic, or rife with religious stereotypes. "They were still calling Islam 'Mohammedanism,"' he said.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Bodin, with $80,000 in federal grants, established the World Religious Curriculum Development Center in Minneapolis. The center's lesson plans on all major world religions are in use in "thousands" of high schools in the U.S. and some schools in other countries, Mr. Smith said.
Signs of the religious revival exist in almost every part of the world, said Harvey Cox, professor at the Harvard Divinity School and author of The Secular City. Events in Poland, Latin America, Iran, and the U.S., he observed, are part of an "epochal" shift in values, characterized by a search for theological answers to personal and public problems.
For Mr. Cox, a 1979 visit to Mexico City dramatized the church-state issues that he believes schools in the U.S. will probably confront in coming years.
Mexico City "is the perfect embodiment of the urban, sprawling, secular megalopolis," Mr. Cox said. "They are far more restrictive [of public religious expression] than we would ever imagine." Priests are forbidden to wear clerical collars in public or to celebrate mass in open places, he said.
But the religious values of Mexicans, Mr. Cox said, have thrived in spite of the formal restrictions on public religious ceremonies. When Pope John Paul II visited Mexico City in 1979, hundreds of thousands turned out to see him and television stations interrupted regular programming to record his visit.
The outpouring of religious expression during the Pope's visits to Mexico and other countries, Mr. Cox said, has debunked the fears expressed after Schempp-Murray that the decision would push religion to "near the zero level" in American society.