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Law & Courts Commentary

God in School

By Joseph P. Viteritti — October 15, 2007 6 min read

We can argue over whether God is good, bad, or indifferent, Mr. Hitchens; but God certainly isn’t dead. In fact, while atheists like Christopher Hitchens are showing up on the best-seller lists, God keeps showing up at school, now at charter schools of all places. You have to hand it to Him … or Her … or Them (this has gotten so complicated): God is pretty savvy about education, just doesn’t miss a beat.

The ongoing debate over school choice that gathered steam in the last decade of the last century generally moved along two paths. Charter schools would provide children with public alternatives to district-run schools, and vouchers would allow children to attend private and religious schools with public dollars. Choice opponents speculated about whether charters would curb the demand for vouchers or fuel it. I always suspected the latter in the short run and the former over time. Behind high-minded discussions about what was good for kids, schools, the country, and the Constitution was a genuine concern about market share. In New York City, some of the same people who once opposed charter schools are now running them. And five years after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, ruled that it’s legal to use school vouchers at religious schools, there is serious talk around the country about religious charter schools. Actually, it may be more than just talk, as various groups with strong cultural identities seek to establish their own schools. Two reputable scholars carefully broached the subject in these pages earlier this year. (“What About Religious Charter Schools?”, June 20, 2007.)

With the introduction of new models of schooling, the legal boundaries between church and state have been under negotiation.

Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy was started four years ago near Minneapolis by a group called Islamic Relief. The school focuses on the Arabic culture and language, and its executive director is an imam. Administrators stress that the school is cultural and not religious in emphasis, since not all Arabs are Muslims. Its reading, math, social studies, and science programs are purchased from commercial publishers like Scott Foresman, and it enjoys a decent academic reputation.

There was recently a great stir in New York City when the opening of Khalil Gibran International Academy was announced. The uproar was accompanied by anti-Arab rhetoric and a campaign against its intended principal, an immigrant from Yemen who has since resigned. But Khalil Gibran is one step further removed from the religious fault line than the Minnesota school. It was started by the city’s school department, it will be run by the school department, and its planning committee included an interfaith coalition. Its namesake, the famous Lebanese poet, was a Christian. The new principal is Jewish.

Ben Gamla Charter School was founded recently by a group of Jewish parents in Hollywood, Fla. It focuses on Jewish culture, teaches Hebrew, and serves kosher food in its cafeteria. Its principal is an Orthodox rabbi. (“Mideast-Themed Schools Raise Curricular, Church-State Issues,” Sept. 5, 2007.) It may have a more difficult time convincing critics that it can separate a Jewish cultural focus from its religious roots. While it is permissible and admirable to teach about religion in public schools as a cultural phenomenon, focusing on a particular religion could raise the possibility of unconstitutional favoritism. These are important distinctions in determining whether a public school complies with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibiting government establishment of religion.

Over the past 60 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has worked assiduously to rid public schools of Bible reading, organized prayer, and creationism. At times, though, the religion question had reached the point of absurdity, with parents, teachers, and administrators becoming fearful that any mention of God in a public school would bring down the wrath of the courts and their separationist solicitors. Exactly 10 years ago, the Supreme Court overturned a 12-year-old prohibition that would not allow public school teachers to offer remedial services to poor children at religious schools. Legal disputes about reciting the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance remain unsettled. The pledge is viewed by some not only as an unconstitutional expression of theism, but also as presumptuously monotheistic.

I consider myself accommodationist on the First Amendment. I also have been a supporter of school choice in general and charters in particular, primarily because they can provide needed opportunities for poor children stuck in failing schools, but also because I have become persuaded that district schools, as they are currently structured, are incapable of accommodating the cultural values of the increasingly diverse student population that attends them. That being said, I find the idea of a religious charter school problematic.

Some advocates of religious charter schools may wonder whether there is a practical difference between a voucher program and a religious charter school. There most definitely is. According to the Supreme Court, a voucher is permissible when funding is allocated to families and it becomes available to religious schools through an independent choice by parents to enroll their child in such a school. A religious charter school is a public school that receives direct funding from the government. Of course, one might reasonably observe that since all charter schools are schools of choice, the voucher process that presumably allocates money to individuals rather than schools is merely symbolic. But the symbolism is significant, and there is more than symbolism involved. The Constitution does not permit public schools to promote or favor religion; nor should it.

We might even consider trying fully secular charter schools, so that the children of 'orthodox secularists' can pledge allegiance to 'one country, more or less indivisible.'

I do not question the good intentions of those who propose or would operate religious charter schools. They are trying to come to terms with a reality that the courts and educators have denied for some time. Religion is a major aspect of American life. A great majority of Americans express some form of religious identity. Although most of these same people live secular lives and find a suitable education for their children in traditional public schools, they have never supported the complete secularization of public education or public life that the courts once seemed determined to engineer. With the introduction of new models of schooling and the slow evolution of a more accommodationist jurisprudence dating back to the early 1980s, the legal boundaries between church and state have been under negotiation. But these boundaries should be negotiated carefully. Religious charter schools cross that boundary.

Given the significant increase in immigration from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, schools will be asked to accommodate more diverse populations than ever before, coming from families practicing faiths that fall outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, and even the monotheism that Muslims share with most Americans. We need to find ways to welcome these newcomers, respect their traditions, and incorporate them into the American civic culture so that they can share in it productively. Charter schools can help them adapt. They introduce new possibilities for experimentation in education. We might even consider trying fully secular charter schools, so that the children of “orthodox secularists” can pledge allegiance to “one country, more or less indivisible.” And perhaps we educators are ready to talk more seriously about how to deal with … you know Who.

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as God in School


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