Magnet for controversy

When approaching the topic of religion in schools, it is smart to be as careful as you would in approaching a roaring fire without a poker—because the subject is just as likely to flame up into a heated argument and get out of control.

For the pious and converted, the thought of excluding religion from schools is tantamount to criticizing religion itself and denying its place in American history. For the agnostic and atheistic, putting religion in schools is like subjecting our children to brainwashing worse than goes on in Guantánamo.

Many put up the “separation between church and state” as the opening salvo against any incursion of religion into the schools. But did you know that that statement is not found in the text of the Constitution? It was from a Jeffersonian statement in which he called for “a wall of separation between church and state,” and it is a nice metaphor to throw out in your interfamily verbal spat. But it is the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment that is where the real fight is fought with regard to public education and religion. It basically is interpreted to mean that government shall not establish a religion, and so tax dollars should not go to help establish a religion-based school.

The real pertinent squabbling goes on in the Supreme Court, where the justices have prohibited school-sponsored prayer and outright religious activities in schools but have allowed some student-led religious activities and access to facilities by outside groups.

On another front close to home, an evolving federal court case is growing out of a Sacramento Waldorf school where opponents have claimed that some form of religion is seeping into the curriculum of a tax-supported magnet school (see “Schooled in spirituality”). As staff writer Chrisanne Beckner points out, there are lots of interesting shades of gray in the program, certain to fan the embers and provide fuel for the ongoing argument.