Imagine this church-state scenario

542401b Woman Praying W Rosary Beads PostersOK, here’s the plan.

Clearly, there is ugly anti-Catholic prejudice left in American life, especially in terms of bias against the most devout and traditional forms of the faith. So what would happen if public educators floated a plan to have all students learn more about this important world religion by practicing this faith during their school days?

The teacher could stand at the front of the classroom and, all together, as part of a taxpayer-funded class activity, with the teacher grading students on their participation, everyone present would learn how to say the following:

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death.

All of the students — Protestants, Muslims, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, you name it — could learn about fasting, memorizing Bible passages, making the sign of the Cross and saying confession (maybe they could do that on a field trip). Wouldn’t this be great for promoting interfaith understanding in this tense age? I’m sure there wouldn’t be protests about this from strict church-state separationists, secularists, fundamentalist Protestants and others. Right? It would be an educational exercise. That’s the ticket.

Well, maybe a few people would be upset. But it seems that this kind of interfaith education is kosher these days. After all, click here and read this story from the San Francisco Chronicle about a U.S. Supreme Court non-decision:

The court, without comment, left intact a ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco last November in favor of the Byron Union School District in eastern Contra Costa. The suit challenged the content of a seventh-grade history course at Excelsior Middle School in Byron in the fall of 2001. The teacher, using an instructional guide, told students they would adopt roles as Muslims for three weeks to help them learn what Muslims believe.

She encouraged them to use Muslim names, recited prayers in class, had them memorize and recite a passage from the Quran and made them give up something for a day, such as television or candy, to simulate fasting during the month of Ramadan.

What’s my point? We really don’t need to debate the ruling itself or the wisdom of the program.

What I found interesting is that the newspaper editors didn’t seem to realize what would have happened, say in Northern California, if anyone had attempted to mandate a similar program for Orthodox Judaism, Evangelical Protestantism, Catholicism, etc.

Would the newspaper have considered that a threatening violation of the DMZ between church and state? Or what if a charismatic, Pentecostal Christian educator worked up some taxpayer-funded class activities based on learning how to speak in tongues, evangelism, the laying on of hands for healing, watching Pat Robertson videos, handling snakes …

What would the ACLU think of that? What would the editors think of that? Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dominic Glisinski

    I’m running the risk of breaking blog rules here, but…
    I must be getting old. When I was in public school we sang the national anthem, then recited the Lord’s Prayer as a class each morning, this was followed by the reading of a chapter of the Bible, we took turns reading, one person each day. I said PUBLIC school…in the 80′s here in Canada. Once a week a clergyman would come and provide a half hour lesson in “morals and ethics”….students could opt out with parental consent and attend a ‘guidance” session during that time slot by a social worker.

    I wouldn’t inflict Pat Robertson on innocent schoolkids…:) Kyrie Eleison…

  • Deborah

    Two points interest me:

    (1) That the reporter did not (at least as far as I saw) cite the source of the “instructional guide” used for this course. Was it the school district or an outside organization?

    (2) That the Ninth Circuit put this out as a memorandum opinion, “not appropriate for publication and may not be cited to or by the courts of this circuit except as provided by 9th Cir. R. 36-3.” Any lawyers want to comment on the significance (if any) of that? Are they attempting to block Christian or Jewish parents from citing this as support for similar curricula about other religions?

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Excellent points!! And I agree totally with raising the question–especially by using the example of teaching kids the “Hail Mary” so they can pray the rosary to see-very partially–what life as a Catholic can be like.
    However, two caveats: In common everyday language among Catholics one does not “say” confession, but “makes” one’s Confession or one “Goes to Confession.”
    As for memorizing Bible passages–that is a uniquely Protestant passtime. Even great Catholic saints have been known to write “somewhere in the Bible it says something like this::….” In the Catholic Tradition the emphasis is on hearing the Word and obeying it rather than expending time and energy memorizing the Bible (although the early monks and desert fathers were famous for their memorizing of the Bible skills). I think the Orthodox have the same attitude toward Bible memorization as do Catholics–nice hobby, but not a key activity.

  • JohnW

    Hey, I did that with my class once! I led them in the Rosary once a week for a month. None of the parents complained even a little bit.

    Of course, it was Sunday school. At a Catholic Church.

  • Dominic Glisinski

    “As for memorizing Bible passages—…”

    “…Thy Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee”
    “Let the Word of God dwell in you richly…”

  • Michael

    Since this is a non-story on a five-year old controversy, isn’t it possible reporters have asked those questions? Have you done a five or six year analysis of newspaper stories in California–this is a statewide mandate–to see if those quesitons have been asked?

  • Discernment

    Whoa. Isn’t this US Supreme Court supposed to be conservative? Doesn’t it have a Catholic majority?

    Maybe those optimist anti-abortion activists should be a bit more careful….

  • holmegm

    >Since this is a non-story on a five-year old
    >controversy, isn’t it possible reporters have asked
    >those questions?

    Um, what? It’s OK because it happened five years ago? Justice is satisfied by time passing?

    And it’s quite possible that they *haven’t* asked those questions. Reporters are great at not asking questions that don’t support their desired storyline.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Reporters are great at not asking questions that don’t support their desired storyline. ”

    This is an important point, one that came up a few days ago when we were discussing the nature of the bias in the media.

    One of the biggest ways that faith in the MSM has crashed over the years lies in their choice of what is a “non-story” and what is a story.

    Michael’s point about this being a “non-story” is obvioulsy shared. It hasn’t recived nearly as much press as Madonna’s latest tour, or Paris Hilton, (important and powerful person that she is).

    Things that support a paper or a reporters pre-concieved biases get reported on, things that don’t support a liberal veiw of things either don’t get reported on at all, or wind up on page 37D behind the cat litter ads.

    So it isn’t so much HOW stories are reported that caused the majority of Americans to loose faith in the networks; though getting caught making up the news sure didn’t help any. What caused people to loose faith in the MSM was finding out about things like this, (stories that most people would consider to be big news) through alternative media, and NOT the MSM.

    (Wasn’t it the National Enquirer that broke the Monica Lewiniski story originally? LGF has covered Fauxtography better than any MSM I’ve seen, though I don’t watch them much anymore.)

    One of the reasons talk radio gained so much credibility so fast was that people who listened to it were simply better informed. Why? Not because the hosts were unbiased, but because the Talk Radio hosts would pass on “non-stories” like this one, things that the alphabet networks wouldn’t. When what the talk radio hosts were saying proved to be true, and people realized that the MSM had decided NOT to cover the story people started to wonder “what else aren’t they telling me?”.

  • Michael

    Um, what? It’s OK because it happened five years ago? Justice is satisfied by time passing?

    Well, it’s called “news” and not “olds.”

    This case was first brought in 2002. That’s when it was “news” When you look at the briefs to the Supreme Court–which are available on Westlaw or Lexis–it appears that the trial court disagreed that these were “prayers,” noted no Muslims were involved in teaching or administering the school thus lessening the risk of proslytizing, and that the curriculum was overwhelmingly secular.

    That’s when you’d expect there to have been stories. Maybe when the Ninth Circuit rejected the case, almost without comment, would have been a good time to do a story. Now, not so much.

  • Deborah

    Michael — It’s a non-event when any court in the Ninth Circuit makes a bone-headed decision. (There’s a joke in the legal profession that goes something like this: “Why did God create the Rocky Mountains? To keep Ninth Circuit law from infecting the rest of the U.S.”)

    What’s news is when the Supreme Court – a now much more conservative Supreme Court according to virtually every legal analyst – refuses to review one with such obvious application across the religious spectrum. I believe that’s the new news event tmatt is pointing to.

  • Michael

    Except that it may not be that good of a case. While this has been a cause celebre in the conservative/religious blogoshpere this week, there’s a reason they never heard about it before. If this were really a good case that the well-funded conservative legal community could have won, people would have heard about it before the SCOTUS dispsensed with it along with 1200 other cases.

    The Supreme Court doesn’t want to take bad cases, because bad cases make bad law. The fact that the Ninth Circuit didn’t think it was a good case and barely opined on it means that there’s more to the issue and the specifics than is being bandied about in the conservative blogosphere.

    Maybe the reason the SCOTUS didn’t take it was because a ruling would necessarily favor school districts and minority religions, something their conservative supporters couldn’t tolerate. Now THAT would be a story.

  • Chip

    Has anyone found the disrict court opinion (CV-02-03004-PJH) online anywhere?

    Has anyone found a newsaper account of the original opinion anywhere that quotes directly from the District Court judge’s opinion?

    All I am finding is reaction to appeals.

  • Jinzang

    Outrage is cheap and easy. Given that students are going to be taking world religion classes, what, in your opinion are the proper limits to student participation? Shouldn’t students read selected texts from these religions? Is a little play acting to reinforce the lessons out of bounds?

  • Kizmet


    Praying to another god is not play-acting.

  • Michael

    Chip, I looked for the lower court ruling online and couldn’t find it. I found the decision and briefs from the 9th Circuit and the briefs before SCOTUS

  • Jinzang

    But what constitutes prayer? If I read a prayer to Apollo am I praying to him? What if I read it aloud, or recite it in the context of a play? Doesn’t prayer require some sort of inner assent to what one is saying?

  • MattK

    I tried clickig on the submit astory link but server couldn’t br found. this story is the first time I’ve ever seen anything about churches buying realestate from each other and the depreciation of the buildings/lands. It wasn’t the main thrust of the story but I thought it was interesting.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “But what constitutes prayer? If I read a prayer to Apollo am I praying to him? What if I read it aloud, or recite it in the context of a play? Doesn’t prayer require some sort of inner assent to what one is saying? ”

    That reasoning was pretty much rejected by the Court decisions that forbid prayer in public school. As I understood it ANY faculty or administration lead recitation of a text that is considered to be a prayer is unconstitutional..

    unless you are praying to Allah and live in the 9th Circuit.

  • Deborah

    Some interesting tidbits from the original U.S. District Court opinion (CV-02-03004-PJH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA, Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton):

    1) The State of California requires that seventh graders study Islam in their world history classes. The events made subject of this suit took place around the time of the 9/11 attacks; in fact, the student-plaintiffs were in the midst of this module on Sept. 11, 2001.

    2) The role-playing games (which took up about a week of the eight-week unit) are contained in a supplement (“Islam: A simulation of Islamic history and culture”) which is not part of the state-approved world history text. The teacher in this instance modified even this text for her own use. Although the text read that students would “become Muslims” during the course, the teacher did emphasize that the students were not actually adopting or practicing this religion, only role-playing it. They were encouraged, but not required, to adopt a Muslim name to make the role-playing more realistic. Most did.

    3) The teacher admits that she read portions of the Quran and the prayers aloud in class, required students to recite one line from a prayer on their way out of class, and required participation in “fasting” (giving up TV or candy for a day) for their Ramadan exercise and participation in community service activities for the Zakaat exercise. Demonstration of the fifth pillar of Islam, pilgrimage or Hajj, consisted of a board game called “Race to Makkah,” which featured flash cards with statements such as “The Holy Qu’ran is God’s word as revealed to Prophet Muhammad through the Archangel Gabriel,” without any qualifiers such as “Muslims believe that …”. Students were also required to design and color an Islamic prayer rug. Extra credit was given to those who fasted for a lunch period or did other “above-and-beyond” activities.

    4) When the plaintiffs/parents asked that their daughter be excused from the unit the next year (their son went first), the teacher (a different one than the son had had the previous year) was upset but did assign alternate material on the French Revolution to the student-plaintiff and another student who asked to be excused. However, the daughter’s teacher did not have her students participate in the role-playing exercises as did the son’s teacher and was careful to preface theological statements with “Muslims believe …”.

    5) Much of the summary judgment here is prefaced on mootness (both children had completed seventh grade by the time this decision was published and were therefore no longer subjected to the treatment complained of) and the school board’s immunity from suit. The Establishment Clause claims were dismissed mostly because a casual observer would not equate the role-playing exercises with actual Muslim practice (reading one prayer versus praying five times daily). The children also admitted in their testimony that they did not understand themselves to be practicing a religion.

    5) The court held that, even if the school and its employees had violated the Establishment Clause, qualified immunity would protect them from suit.

    This is all based on a hurried reading of the USDC decision, so if anyone has any corrections, please — no flaming!

  • Deborah

    While this has been a cause celebre in the conservative/religious blogoshpere this week, there’s a reason they never heard about it before. If this were really a good case that the well-funded conservative legal community could have won, people would have heard about it before the SCOTUS dispsensed with it along with 1200 other cases.

    Between the time the USDC suit was filed and the decision came out in late 2003, several news organizations reported on it: San Diego Union Tribune (7/6/02), Associated Press (7/6/02), The San Francisco Chronicle (9/8/02), Ventura County (CA) Star (12/21/03), Long Beach Press-Telegram (12/26/03). So it was hardly a secret. But it does become a bigger deal once it makes it way to the Supreme Court, so of course the coverage gets bigger. And, actually, SCOTUS receives over 7,500 appeals petitions each term, of which about 150 are granted, so the odds were stacked against them. Given the points about mootness and qualified immunity, the Establishment Clause foul-up really didn’t have much chance of getting a hearing, IMHO.

    I would expect that the various Christian legal defense firms will be looking to test this again in better circumstances (plaintiffs with better standing to sue, school district that messes up royally, etc.). I doubt this is the end of this story.

  • Kyle

    You ask what would have happened, “if anyone had attempted to mandate a similar program for Orthodox Judaism, Evangelical Protestantism, Catholicism, etc.” Orthodox Judaism seems to stand out from those other two to me…does the fact that Christianity is (seen as) the dominant religion in the US have anything to do with this, sociologically?

    Most people, one would think, have some idea about the culture and beliefs of a Catholic or Evangelical Protestant while we mostly remain ignorant at the public level about what a Muslim does and believes.

    There may be a double standard, but it may be a fair one–a big difference between education on a little-known topic and indoctrination in what is otherwise mainstream. A sidetrack but interesting related question: do we have a duty to guard even more against Christianity in the church-state separation because it has the leg up on other faiths by already being more widespread? Religious affirmative action?

    Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with the program no matter the faith as long as the kids can opt out and the portrayal of the religion is a fair one.

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