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Schools focus on teaching tolerance of religion

Religion in classrooms isn’t banned, just unsanctioned and student-led

POSTED: October 2, 2011 1:36 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Michael Bookwalter 16, a sophomore, bows his head in prayer Wednesday morning in observance of See You at the Pole at Johnson High School. Bookwalter and several classmates congregated at their school's flagpole before school to pray for their friends, teachers, school and country.

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Johnson High School sophomore Michael Bookwalter, 17, had a math test two weeks ago. He didn't feel ready for it.

He asked the teacher if he could pray.

"She said, ‘I can't say yes or no.' We took a vote and did," Bookwalter said. "I didn't know teachers couldn't talk about this in school."

Prayer and religion in the public school system has long been a major debate point. Organizations such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes lead teams in prayer before games and devotions after practice. Georgia state law requires a 60-second-or-less moment of reflection during the school day.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding, I think, about religion in schools," Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. "The legal side is you can't impose particular religious beliefs within structured class time."

Dyer said the general rule is whether students have a choice to participate in a religious activity or not.

This is one reason why clubs such as FCA meet before or after school and not during school hours.

"Students are provided a daily quiet reflection as per state rule, but ... students may choose to participate or not participate in quiet reflection, prayer or meditation," said Terry Sapp, teacher on special assignment for Hall County Schools.

Though teachers cannot lead a class in prayer, there are some instances where invocations are allowed in area schools.

"Students sometimes lead invocations at school events such as graduations. There is no required religion or belief system they must adhere to, to do so," Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said.

"Our regular board meetings begin with an invocation, which is based upon a number of court interpretations regarding this ‘historically accepted' practice in our country."

Emily Lawson, 17, a senior and FCA co-captain at Gainesville High School, said most teams pray before games depending on their coaches, both at Gainesville and at her previous school, North Hall High.

"Prayer, or lack of, is a personal choice and should be left up to the individual," Mark Tomcho, a special education teacher at Chestatee High School, said. "If a person wishes to pray alone or with a group, then they certainly have that right. However, when one individual attempts to speak for all people regarding what they believe - a sporting event when they say, ‘In Jesus' name we pray' - then that infringes on others' beliefs."

Gordon Higgins, director of community relations and athletics for Hall County Schools, said he is not aware of public invocations at school sporting events or banquets.

The goal: Be all-inclusive

Both Gainesville and Hall County boards of education work to encourage tolerance and acceptance of different religious beliefs.

Religious holidays are one place that tolerance is exercised as students may be excused to observe their beliefs.

"Students having other religious needs or requirements are free to work out those needs through their teachers or their school administrators. To my knowledge, (Hall County) has had no issues meeting the needs of students with specific religious requirements," Sapp said.

To their knowledge, Schofield and Dyer said no one has raised any issues about their right to practice religion being violated at a school.

"As a high school teacher, I have had the pleasure to work with many different students from many different backgrounds and beliefs. In my opinion, school-related events should be all-inclusive for all students from all backgrounds," Tomcho said.

"My concern lies with the possibility that by the schools sanctioning one particular belief system that we fail to recognize and respect the others."

The Johnson FCA was faced with concerns from teachers about one of their activities for those reasons.

"One time we did a prayer walk. We put signs on the doors, ‘Your room's been prayed for by Johnson FCA.' And they said, ‘Do we really need to do that?'" said Deborah Eidson, FCA adviser at Johnson. "I told the kids this is OK. They haven't taken away our right to pray; we just can't put that sign up."

In some districts, Muslim children face obstacles when they miss school for prayer services or religious activities, said Imam Bilal Ali of the Gainesville Islamic Culture Center. But Ali said area schools have been open and accepting to those of the Islamic faith.

"We've never had a problem. If a parent comes to me and says a teacher said something, we tell the board and the board gets right on it," Ali said. "It's one of the finest school systems in the country as far as observing not just the Muslim faith but any faith across the board. We don't feel uncomfortable in our traditional dress. People know us; we feel right at home."

Ali and his wife both graduated from Gainesville High School and experienced handling religion and education firsthand. Muslims must pray several times a day, as prescribed in the Quran.

"What I did back in the '90s when it was time to pray, I was able to be excused from my class, no interruptions," Ali said. "My children are in the (Gainesville) school system. The first prayer of the day, they make it in the home."

School gets out in time for his kids to have the second prayer at home as well.

"This is a personal comment, but as an evangelical believer, I'm always concerned and trying not to offend people that believe differently than I do or make them feel like they don't belong," Schofield said. "The faith I believe in is compassion. I would hate to see a child from another nationality feel left out or excluded. We try to be sensitive to that."

Private schools not as limited

Students at Lakeview Academy, a private school, get a little different taste of religious tolerance.

"Special times during the year, parents come in, oftentimes to share with the class about this religious holiday or tradition," said Michael McCann, history department chairman.

"We do have a majority of Christian parents and families so we do have a candlelight service at Christmas time. We make every effort not to make it exclusive. When students give prayers or open a meeting or assembly, sometimes they're Christian prayers and sometimes they're not."

Lakeview Academy curriculum includes religion as part of its world religion, world history and geography classes.

Lakeview sophomores read a book on world religions and focus discussions on it for the first few weeks of school. McCann said students need to have a background understanding of different faiths to pick up symbolism and references in other works.

"Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural address is full of biblical references. Without knowing what those are, you miss most of what they're saying," he said.

Teaching religion also brings more possibilities for discussion, McCann said. Last year, he had two Hindu sisters in class, which he said opened the class up.

"They really listened to the questions (the sisters) had about, ‘Why do Christians do that,' which Christians don't even think about," McCann said. "Being able to talk freely about these things and ask these questions in a nonjudgmental atmosphere has allowed me to teach better and our students to learn about not just other religions but about their own from a different perspective."

Eidson believes it is crucial for kids to have an outlet to express their religious beliefs in the school setting.

"In a fallen world, in a high school setting, these kids are under so many pressures. Not only of just homework and parents and doing the right thing, but they're faced with drugs and alcohol," Eidson said. "They're faced with so many temptations, so many stresses in their life that this is a way to know someone else in this school believes the same way they do and they have their support."

And as long as the activities are student-led and held outside of class hours, Schofield said there is no problem with religion being in schools.

"Students do not check their religious beliefs at the door. They have incredible freedoms to worship the god of their choice, to pray, to show what they believe in as long as they don't infringe on others," Schofield said.

"I see children praying when they sit down for a meal, I see children in small groups for Bible study praying. I hear we've taken prayer out of schools. That's not what I've witnessed."



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