Revelations column: More religion in school, please

Jennifer Lee Preyss By Jennifer Lee Preyss

May 23, 2014 at 12:23 a.m.
Updated May 24, 2014 at 12:24 a.m.

I'm never sure how to respond when someone brings up the separation of church and state argument.

For the years I've covered matters pertaining to the subject, I'm always somewhat concerned about the way in which we as a nation approach the subject of religion merging with state, school and public forum.

The debate came up recently after I wrote about a Buddhist father, Thomas Crow, and his daughter, Emma of Aloe Elementary School.

Emma took home a Bible from school that she picked up off a display table that was set up in her gym class.

The Bibles were available to the students from Gideon missionaries, who evangelize and minister to people internationally by the simple act of giving out pocket-sized Bibles.

It's harmless enough. The message is attached to a faith I personally belong to.

The trouble started, however, when the Gideons set up their display table outside Emma's gym class during school hours on school property, and then moved the table inside when it started to rain.

Thomas Crow did not want his daughter's class time to merge in any way with a display table and two Gideons waiting to hand her a Bible.

He contacted me, and I wrote a story. The story sparked quite a debate.

And most of that debate was about the separation between church and state.

I'm not a fan of this phrase as we use it today primarily because most have grown to adopt an incorrect version of the statement meaning religion is not at all welcome, useful or allowed in state or government - period.

That's incorrect.

The Federal law that we all love to quote so liberally is often misinterpreted. The First Amendment was written for one purpose: to restrict the federal government from butting in or interfering with the states' constitutions and their policies for exercising religion.

There is nothing in the Constitution preventing religion or religion education in school.

School districts in every state of this free nation are free to implement religion studies classes as they choose.

What is not allowed, however, is any school or government endorsement of religion or favorable treatment toward a religion, even if it's the majority religion of the area.

While some may not agree, or become irritated that religion can be taught in school or feel students should relocate their student-led religious clubs to off-campus locations - doesn't matter.

It's constitutional on state and federal levels if it's handled properly and legally.

Having said that, the Gideons' display of Bibles in Emma's gym - while I don't personally object to the message - made me uncomfortable for a few reasons.

First, the parents weren't informed the Gideons were on school campus. Does it bother me? No. But it bothered Thomas Crow - partly because he wasn't informed of their presence.

Second, while the ministry of the Gideons is certainly a noble one, perhaps it would be better to reach out to students who are old enough to read and comprehend the New Testament. Elementary students are likely not going to understand many of themes on their own. But perhaps that's the reason they are known for giving out Bibles in elementary classes - because they know they will eventually end up in the hands of adults.

Third, however the school suggests (which they did this week) that the bibles were not "distributed" to the students, the Gideons were visible during a mandatory school hour of Emma's gym class, where Bibles were available for pick-up.

That means these very young and impressionable students' voluntary contact with religious materials was compromised.

Had the Gideons shown up for a religion education day or stood on the public side walk outside the school or waited until mandatory school hours were over, perhaps I wouldn't recoil so.

In this particular instance, it does appear like favoritism toward Christians to hand out Christian literature while school was still in session.

What is the likelihood, Victoria parents would not have rallied, called, protested or demanded to be notified if the Victoria Islamic Center Imam or an Orthodox rabbi or wiccan priestess set up a table during their child's gym class (even if only because it was raining) and handed out religious literature to elementary students?

I don't think that would have gone over very well, especially if the parents weren't notified beforehand.

To be clear, I am not against religion in school. Just the opposite.

Since returning from India and experiencing the religious education taught in public curriculum and witnessing how easily it is for the middle and high school students to get along with their Muslim, Hindu and Christian friends, I have vocalized many times that I believe religion education is necessary in school.

If added to the curriculum as part of a history, geography or sociology program, I believe the education could go a long way to help ease fear of others in our communities who may practice faiths we are not familiar with.

I also think the schools should endorse and perhaps consider hosting a religion education day, where many of the local religious leaders in town can visit the schools and teach about their faith and answer questions about their culture.

Locking religion out of school is not the answer understanding faith and breaking down stereotypes and fear.

Bringing religion through the schoolhouse gates openly and freely during an appropriate, universally decided upon time with the parents fully prepared and aware and with the purpose of interacting and teaching and asking questions - this is how religion should be presented at school.

And all religions, the ones interested in participating, anyway, should be invited and welcomed.

Take it from this faith and religion reporter, spirituality is not something to be feared, and it does not and has never compromised my own Christian faith.

Knowledge of those practicing around me has only made my faith stronger.

But we must not force our beliefs. We must seek to educate first, out in the open, and to those willing to listen.

Just like our Texas Constitution states, public teaching of religion is necessary for a strong moral society, which is necessary for good government.

We will never achieve this through Bible display tables during elementary gym class.

You grow strong, moral societies when you eliminate reasons to fear its religiously, ethnically, racially and culturally diverse neighbors.

Jennifer Preyss is the faith editor for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535, or on Twitter @jenniferpreyss



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