Use of Guidelines Reignites Debate over Religion in School
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Use of Guidelines Reignites Debate over Religion in School

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The debate over religion in the public schools is back.

In the latest development, a campaign to increase religious expression in public schools has raised the hackles of the author of the guidelines on which the proposed program is based.

Attorney Marc Stern, who authored guidelines detailing the types of religious expression legally permitted in public schools, is mounting a campaign to prevent the Center for Jewish and Christian Values — a Jewish-run organization that raises money from evangelical Christians — from using the guidelines in a way that he calls “totally unacceptable.”

Those guidelines were endorsed nearly two years ago by a wide range of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress.

Stern is the co-director of the legal department of the AJCongress, which also signed on to the guidelines.

Several months after their initial publication in April 1995, similar guidelines were endorsed by the National PTA and by the U.S. Department of Education, which then distributed them to every school district in the country.

The guidelines were authored — and issued by the administration — in an effort to avert a proposed constitutional amendment on religious equality.

The administration had hoped that once Americans realized the extent of the protections under current law, politicians would abandon their efforts to amend the Constitution.

According to the guidelines, students can pray during the school day, wear religious attire, express religious beliefs in assignments and make religious or anti-religious remarks as part of an appropriate classroom discussion.

But for those intent on enhancing religion in the schools, those guidelines were not taken seriously enough.

In addition to promoting the guidelines, more must be done to get the guidelines actually implemented in public schools, said Chris Gersten, director of the politically conservative Center for Jewish and Christian Values, the Washington offshoot of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

To that end, his organization is launching a program that encourages teachers to use the Old Testament and the New Testament as part of their programs to prevent drug and alcohol abuse and teen-age pregnancies.

In the center’s recommendations for prevention programs, it suggests that teachers cite specific biblical passages to explore the ethics of avoiding destructive behavior and that they recommend that students read the Jewish and Christian Bibles as well as William Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and “The Inferno.”

The proposal also urges teachers to suggest to students that they turn to prayer to avoid self-destructive behavior. They also encourage the suggestion of other techniques when tempted to engage in illicit behavior. Such techniques include counting to 10 or reflecting on the response of a moral figure of authority, such as a parent or member of the clergy.

It is this point that most irks Stern.

Having teachers suggest to students that they turn to prayer or religious texts to overcome temptation “is flat out illegal,” he said, “as well as ineffective.”

He said it was illegal for teachers to steer students toward a particular religious practice.

Even if the center manages to make its proposal conform to the letter of the law, it would still be “very unwise,” Stern said. “What are you going to do when a teacher engages in religious speech? It’s unpoliceable.”

This is precisely what “the far right wing of the evangelical movement wants to do,” Stern said.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is run by Orthodox Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who said he raised last year close to $6 million from 35,000 evangelical Christians eager to show their support for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

That is twice the amount and twice the number of contributors that the fellowship had in 1995, Eckstein said. This year, he hopes, “God willing, to double it again.”

The program to increase the presence of religion in the lives of public school students within what the programs’ backers say are legal limits is initially being targeted at five cities: Grand Rapids, Mich.; the Burbank-Glendale school district outside Los Angeles, Calif.; Littleton, Colo.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Charlottesville, Va.

School board members in those cities have not yet been contacted and are unaware that they have been selected as pilot cities for the center’s efforts, said Gersten, the center’s director.

The center hopes to recruit local community organizers to try to persuade their local school boards to actively utilize the guidelines.

The effort is being launched with a $185,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Eckstein said.

They hope to expand the program, titled “Protecting Religious Expression in Public Schools,” from five to 25 school districts in 1998, said Eckstein and Gersten.

According to its preamble, the program’s goal is to counter the fact that “over the last generation, there has been an ongoing effort to remove all references to religion and to all personal expressions of religious belief from the public schools, removing any biblical basis for morality from American’s educational system.”

“This lack of a sound moral foundation for our nation’s children has led to a marked increase in juvenile delinquency, violent crime and teen-age pregnancy,” it says. “Bringing moral and character education back into the classroom and protecting allowable religious expression in schools is essential for America’s future.”

The center is trying to get several mainstream Jewish groups, including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League, the AJCommittee and the American Jewish Congress, to back its effort.

Stern, for his part, is trying to convince them not to.

At a meeting with Gersten last week, several Jewish officials apparently expressed concern about the prevention aspect to the program, which is the part that specifically encourages teachers to use religious materials.

While a campaign to educate people about what is legally permissible in the schools is a “good thing,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, “I’m very skeptical about the prevention program,” which seems to “expand ways religion is used” in the schools.

Pelavin said he and other representatives agreed to Gersten’s request to further consider their position on the issue.

Gersten said that if the Jewish community opposes the prevention part of the program, which encourages teachers to use religious materials, then it is unlikely his group will move forward with it.

“It would just be stupid for us to mobilize part of the community, the evangelicals and Catholics, and have the Jewish community feel that what we were doing was so abhorrent that they would fight it,” said Gersten. “There’s no point of splitting the unity of the Jewish and Christian community on this approach. If we can’t do it, then someone other than us will have to run with it.”

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