Tag Archives: Education

Event at Hunter College: “American Education and the Separation of Church and State: Fact vs. Fiction”

The CUNY Institute for Educational Policy is hosting a discussion entitled “American Education and the Separation of Church and State: Fact vs. Fiction,” on December 4th at Hunter College. The discussants include Philip Hamburger (Columbia), Ashley Berner (CUNY), and Matthew Yellin (Hillside Arts and Letters Academy):

Most Americans know the term “separation of church and state,” but few understand it. Howhas the phrase influenced education policy and practice? How has the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment evolved? Are tax credits and vouchers that enable funding for religious schools Constitutional? Are public school teachers allowed to talk about religion in the classroom? If so, how can they do so without violating the Establishment clause of the Constitution?

These are timely questions for New Yorkers: Albany is considering a tax credit bill that would provide support for Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim, and other non-public schools; international leaders are calling for better religious literacy in K-12 classrooms, so that young citizens are prepared to negotiate our diverse and increasingly interconnected world. For many Americans, however, public funding for religious schools, and open discussions about religious beliefs in public school classrooms, raise important concerns.

On December 4, the nation’s leading scholar of First Amendment jurisprudence will set out the history and current interpretation of separation, and a master teacher will discuss some challenges and solutions to navigating religious literacy in New York’s public school system.

Get details and register here.

Conference: Non-Public School Graduates in Civil Society: Release of Data (September 10)

The CUNY Institute for Education Policy will hold a conference, “Non-Public School Graduates in Civil Society: Release of Data” on September 10 at 5:30pm at the Roosevelt House in New York City:

Do private schools serve the public good, or private interests? Do they train for democratic citizenship, or do they further divide an already plural­istic society? A recent research project by Cardus, a non-aligned Canadian thinktank, surveyed a nationally representative sample of 23-39 year-old Americans from across major school sectors and sought to analyze school sector impact upon adult behavior in civic engagement, academic achievement, and religious formation. Join us for a critical examination of just-released data on non-public and public school graduates from the Cardus Religious Schools Initiative at Notre Dame University.

Details are here.

Yoga in Public Schools, American and Indian

Indian Schoolchildren Doing Yoga (NYT)

Last summer, I wrote about a constitutional challenge to yoga classes in California public schools. When a school district near San Diego added yoga to its elementary-school gym program, some parents complained. Yoga, they said, is a Hindu discipline, and including it in a compulsory gym class violates the Establishment Clause. A state trial court disagreed, holding that the school district had removed all religious references, so that what remained was simply a stretching class for kids.

It turns out that similar litigation is unfolding across the world in India, the place where yoga originated. But there, the courts appear to be taking a harder line. The plaintiffs in the Indian case want that country’s Supreme Court to order public schools to include yoga in the curriculum. They cite a 2005 study showing that yoga is important for students’ mental and physical health. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled yet, but has expressed concern about ordering public school students to take yoga classes. Why? Because Indian public schools are officially secular, and yoga is a religious practice. At oral argument this fall, the court said that parents from minority religions–Christianity and Islam, for example–might object to a requirement that their children engage in Hindu exercises at school. The court has asked representatives of the minority religions to appear in the litigation as third parties to state their views.

What explains the different reactions of the American and Indian courts? Much has to do with the different cultural understandings of yoga. Here in the US, most people who do yoga don’t think of it as religious. Spiritual, yes, in the sense that it creates a sense of inner peace, but not religious. Oh, people may understand that yoga has Hindu roots and that some elements, like the salutation to the sun god and chanting the word “Om,” have religious meanings. But these aspects of yoga intrude very little on their experience. “Sure, yoga is religious for some,” they might say, “but not for us. Maybe other people think they’re greeting the sun god, and that’s fine. But we’re just stretching.” So when a public school says it has removed the religious elements of yoga and retained the secular, most Americans would find that position plausible. 

The difficulty is that yoga, as traditionally understood, doesn’t work that way. In traditional understanding, yoga is itself a religious act. The postures themselves lead the practitioner to God, whether the practitioner intends this or not. In traditional understanding, in other words, one can’t separate the religious and secular aspects of yoga and one really shouldn’t try. Indeed, some American Hindus object to the way our popular culture treats yoga as a designer gym routine. Much as many American Christians seek to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” the Hindu American Foundation has mounted a campaign to “Take Back Yoga” for the faith.

Perhaps yoga means one thing in one cultural context but something else in another. You’d have to think, though, that judges in yoga’s home country have a pretty good sense of what the practice is all about. The parents in the California case, who have appealed the trial court’s ruling, might want to have a look at the Indian court’s ultimate decision. 

1000 Mots

Conference on Educational Justice (Oct. 26)

On October 26, St. John’s University will host the biennal Vincentian Chair of Social Justice Conference. This year’s theme is “Educational Justice: Opportunity, Inclusion and Social Equity for All”:

Historically in the United States, education has served as a consistent and sustainable means of alleviating individual poverty and reducing social inequality.  Today, while the developing nations live on that same hope, the developed world has found that education as a poverty reliever and social equalizer has lost ground. The God-given dignity inherent in each person demands that all experience the liberating and enhancing influence of education as a basic human right.  During this conference, we will reflect on the manner in which educational policy and practice have in the past and must in the future contribute to poverty alleviation, social advancement and human solidarity.

Details are here.

Jivraj, “The Religion of Law”

ShowJacketNext month, Palgrave Macmillan will publish The Religion of Law: Race, Citizenship and Children’s Belonging by Suhraiya Jivraj (Kent Law School, University of Kent). The publisher’s description follows.

A timely and original examination into the ways in which religion is conceptualized in two areas of law relating to children – child welfare cases and education law and policy. The book focuses on the relationship between race, religion and culture, bringing critical race and religion perspectives from other disciplines to bear on law.

Shapiro, “Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools”

This past May, the University of Chicago Press published Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools, written Printby Adam R. Shapiro (Birbeck-University of London).  The publisher’s description follows.

In Trying Biology, Adam R. Shapiro convincingly dispels many conventional assumptions about the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial.  Most view it as an event driven primarily by a conflict between science and religion.  Countering this, Shapiro shows the importance of timing: the Scopes trial occurred at a crucial moment in the history of biology textbook publishing, education reform in Tennessee, and progressive school reform across the country.  He places the trial in this broad context- alongside American Protestant antievolution sentiment- and in doing so sheds new light on the trial and the historical relationship of science and religion in America.

For the first time we see how religious objections to evolution became a prevailing concern to the American textbook industry even before the Scopes trial began.  Shapiro explores both the development of biology textbooks leading up to the trial and the ways in which the textbook industry created new books and presented them as “responses” to the trial.  Today, the controversy continues over textbook warning labels, making Shapiro’s study- particularly as it is plays out in one of America’s most famous trials- an original contribution to a timely discussion.

Is Yoga Constitutional?

Last month, I  wrote about a controversy surrounding the White House’s inclusion of a yoga garden in its annual Easter Egg Roll. The problem is this: yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice. Arguably, therefore, state-sponsored yoga is a religious endorsement that violates the Establishment Clause under existing Supreme Court case law.

Yoga Class at Encinitas School (New York Times)

It turns out that very issue is being litigated this week in a California  court. The Encinitas Union School District has introduced yoga as part of the phys ed program in elementary schools. Some parents object that the program highlights yoga’s spiritual elements and amounts to religious indoctrination. The school argues that it has eliminated religious references and that what remains is nothing more than an enriched gym class. An Indiana University religious studies professor who testified at trial demurs. She says that that it would be odd, from a Hindu perspective, to separate yoga’s physical and spiritual elements.

Under Supreme Court precedent, government can separate “cultural” from “religious” messages and promote the former. That’s why official Christmas displays with reindeer and elves survive constitutional scrutiny, but not solo nativity scenes. The logic is that the secular decorations swamp the religious message and ensure that passersby don’t think the government is endorsing Christianity, as opposed to Christianity’s cultural accretions.

This logic has saved some Christmas displays, but offended some Christians. To them, the Supreme Court’s reasoning suggests an unfortunate hostility to their religion: Christmas is acceptable in the public square only if its spiritual associations are diluted. To be sure, the Supreme Court  has said only that official displays must avoid religious associations, but people rarely compartmentalize things so logically. Culture often follows law.

So here’s a question: if official yoga programs are allowed on the theory that they have been scrubbed of religious associations, will pious Hindus object?Will people start demanding to keep the yoga  in yoga?

A Bunny is a Bunny

I guess it was bound to happen. A public elementary school in Alabama has renamed its annual Easter Egg Hunt to avoid giving offense to non-Christian children and parents. According to the school’s principal, Lydia Davenport, the hunt will still take place; it will just no longer have the word “Easter” attached to it. The seasonal rabbit will likewise go nameless:

“Kids love the bunny,” smiles Davenport, “and we just make sure we don’t say ‘the Easter bunny’ so that we don’t infringe on the rights of others because people relate the Easter bunny to religion; a bunny is a bunny and a rabbit is a rabbit,” Davenport concluded.

Well, you can’t argue with that. Most disputes about public holiday displays in America involve Christmas, of course. This is so, I think, because Easter, although far more important as a religious holiday, is relatively minor as a public holiday. Perhaps that’s because it falls on a Sunday. Compared to Christmas, Easter passes by almost without notice in America. But there’s no reason we can’t fight over it as well. Let the Easter Wars begin.

Mead on the “Christian Taliban” at West Point

At the always valuable Via Meadia, Walter Russell Mead has an interesting post concerning last week’s allegations by a former cadet that a “Christian Taliban” harasses non-believers at the US Military Academy. Mead is skeptical it’s as bad as the former cadet says and argues that Christianity in the military is a good thing. Nonetheless, he says, it’s important to strike a balance between the rights of believers and non-believers and he suggests that West Point review the situation. Serious Christians know, he writes, that their faith requires them to show “respect, fairness, and friendship for those outside the fold.”