MAXWELL:  Breaking through the impasse on religion in school

1/29/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


For his own sake, but mostly for the sake of the thousands of young lives in his care, David Mosrie, superintendent of St. Lucie County schools, should bone up on John T. Scopes, the Tennessee schoolteacher convicted and fined in 1925 for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in defiance of a state law requiring the teaching of creationism.

Mosrie is not in trouble for advocating, as Scopes did, that humankind is descended from monkeys. Nor is his problem, as Scopes’ was, the total rejection of creationism in public schools.

His dilemma, which has national implications because of the religious right’s growing influence on the Republican political agenda, stems from meetings he had with two Christian groups. He allegedly told them, without informing School Board members, that, while he believes in the theory of evolution, he also supports the “discussion” of creationism in science classes. Several leading members of the religious groups interpreted Mosrie’s use of the term “discussion” as nothing less than tacit approval to “teach” creationism.

At last week’s board meeting, Mosrie clarified his position: “I do not now, nor have I ever intended to require creationism (to) be taught as a part of our science curriculum. I still believe it is perfectly appropriate and legal for teachers to permit open classroom discussion of alternate theories, including the possibility of an intelligent creator.”

While the theory of evolution remains school policy, he does not want to require science teachers to tell students who believe in the biblical creation that their beliefs are wrong. Teachers should use discretion in letting students talk freely.

An exchange between board member Tom Coss and resident Nancy Spalding demonstrates the tenor of the ongoing debate.

Coss: “I have no problem with students knowing more than one theory. I feel students should know that there are two theories. It’s America, and if they want to sue me, they can.”

Spalding: “That is unthinkable. If that comes up in a science class, the students must be told that there is no scientific validity to creationism.”

Unfortunately, such either/or positions reach beyond St. Lucie County. Across the nation, advocates and opponents of religion-related issues such as teach

ing of creation science and establishing prayer in schools are at a dangerous impasse where only two irreconcilable alternatives are apparent.

But Charles Haynes, visiting professor at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, offers a third option that might bring some sanity to such debates: Why not teach religion in the schools with scholarship and calm, not with dogma and vituperation?

“Most people neither wish to impose religion in the schools nor eliminate religion from the schools,” Haynes said recently. “They want programs that give religion an appropriate place while protecting everyone’s freedom of conscience.”

The occasion for Haynes’ comments was the publication of Finding Common Ground, a Freedom Forum guidebook for teachers and administrators on how to constitutionally include religion and religious sentiments in public schools.

The book’s major premise is that we have hurt public education by excluding religion from the curriculum. However, the book argues that we can repair the damage without violating the mandate of church-state separation. Such a course should not proselytize or impose beliefs on students. It should be an academic subject in which all faiths and denominations are studied.

“Omission of facts about religion can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant,” the book states. “Failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices and concepts of the various religions make much of history, literature, art and contemporary life unintelligible.”

But is such a course possible, or needed, in today’s supercharged climate? What must be done first?

Iris M. Yob, a professor at the School of Education at the State University of New York at Geneseo, sought answers to these questions nearly two years ago when she taught an elective called “Religion and the Public Schools.” Her 13 students, all working on master’s degrees, were full-time public school teachers.

Because Yob had few examples to follow, her task was daunting. “How could I set up the course to model the best of our understanding regarding the fundamental principles of freedom of religion and expression and the principle of separation of church and state?” she writes in November’s Phi Delta Kappan magazine. “And how could we best scrutinize our cherished beliefs and personal prejudices in an effort to prepare teachers to meet the religious diversity that shapes today’s classrooms and the world in which we live?”

The centerpiece of the course was showing students how to create a climate of neutrality, objectivity, flexibility and caring in their classrooms. Discussions were often heated but always instructive. In addition to exploring specific aspects of religions _ including secular humanism _ students kept a journal in which they explored their personal doubts and affirmations of faith.

Did the course yield insights on whether or not religion should be taught as an academic subject in the nation’s public schools? No solid consensus emerged. But everyone agreed that the success or failure of such a course would depend mainly on how well individual teachers handle potentially volatile issues.

Yob said, however, that each student left the class with “a sense that the large, unexplored territory of religious faith is a powerful force in personal and group life and should be better understood by everyone in the interests of effective teaching and learning.”

In this light, the flap over creationism in St. Lucie County, along with other such controversies, is the result of “religious illiteracy,” a condition in which both sides refuse to learn more about their opponents’ positions.

As with other societal problems, the nation’s impasse on religion in the schools can be resolved only with education, hard work and sincerity.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.