We often condemn the Religious Right for its hatred of church-state separation, but it turns out theocrats absolutely love this constitutional concept – when it’s not their faith that’s being favored.
A recent spat sprang up in Kansas when it came to light that the Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary, a public school in Wichita, had a bulletin board depicting the Five Pillars of Islam outside one of its fourth-grade classrooms. The display was to help students learn about major world religions, and “it featured five white, construction-paper columns and the words, ‘The Five Pillars of Islam,’” Wichita Public Schools Spokeswoman Susan Arensman said in an e-mail to the Wichita Eagle.
That display didn’t sit well with someone, who posted a photo of the bulletin board on the Facebook page for a group called “Prepare to Take America Back.” Offering no context, the caption for the photo said: “Students at Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary School in Wichata (sic) Kansas were met with this their first day of school,” the Eagle reported. “This is a school that banned all forms of Christian prayer. … This can not stand.”
The picture was shared 3,500 times as of Monday, the Eagle said.
The school said that it has not, in fact, banned all forms of Christian prayer and that “students and staff have the right to engage in private prayer or religious activities as long as it’s not disruptive,” Arensman told the Eagle.
But it seems the damage was done. The bulletin board was taken down this week and the school district sent a letter to parents, explaining that the school strives to teach students about a range of religions in a historical and cultural context.
“Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet students cover the five major religions of the world – Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam – as part of their Core Knowledge magnet curriculum,” the school district said in a statement. “The students study civilizations throughout time, throughout the world, and cover religion with a focus on the history and geography in the development of civilizations.”
The statement also noted that there is “a painting of the Last Supper hanging in the school as part of the study of art and the Renaissance period.”
The district also made sure to sum up the intent behind the curriculum, which does not seem to include proselytizing.
“The purpose is not to explore the matters of theology, but to understand the place of religion and religious ideas in history,” the statement said. “The Core Knowledge goal is to familiarize, not proselytize; to be descriptive, not prescriptive.”
Everything the school district said sounds good to us. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a comparative religions class in a public school, as long as no viewpoint is being favored or pushed on students. We realize that sort of balance is often hard to achieve, but certainly it can be done. At the very least, Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet seems like it is trying to teach this material in a constitutionally approved way.
The school is also right to note that students are free to pray as long as they aren’t disruptive. No public school has the right to ban all Christian prayer (or any other kind) provided it’s done in a manner that doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights.
Kansas has a pretty rotten record when it comes to tolerance of non-Christian viewpoints, so it’s great to see that a public school there is making an effort to show students that fundamentalist Christianity isn’t the only belief system available.
But the Religious Right and its allies just can’t stand the idea that anything other than their brand of narrow views would be taught to impressionable young minds, so they tried to shut down that attempt at tolerance immediately.
Had the school bulletin board included something like the Ten Commandments or a picture of Jesus, we know the Religious Right would have shouted the school’s praises. But since it didn’t, the theocrats cried foul.
When it comes to the Religious Right, church-state separation is conditional. It’s a shame that the school responded to this hypocrisy by giving the fundamentalists what they wanted.