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Supreme Court ruling 50 years ago set modern course for religion in public schools

Published: Friday, June 14 2013 4:45 p.m. MDT

Haynes and others contend the lack of religious literacy in public schools is one reason for the tensions, prejudice and violence toward faith minorities in the United States.

But introducing religion into the curriculum of public schools isn't easy, and consequently some educators would prefer to avoid it and the controversy it can attract.

"It really goes to people's core values," said David Doty, superintendent of the Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah. "People are very protective of the religious values taught to children. They can get strident and emotional about it."

Haynes said those feelings get to the core of the severe reaction to the Schempp decision.

"The backdrop to the Schempp decision is a very difficult history of America defining itself through its public schools and battling over what messages we give to kids about what kind of country we are," he said. "It’s not just about religion but religion seen as an integral part of our self-definition."

Doty said the key to navigating through this emotional terrain is to have policies that accommodate all sides, secular and religious, so that students' and parents' rights are protected.

Doty, who has helped craft such policies on the district level, said it takes extra effort to give students alternatives to opt out of a class on the Bible as literature or a choral group that is performing a religious composition and take another comparable course.

But the effort is worth it.

"I have always felt that being able to include religion in the appropriate context and parameters in public schools is critical to saving public schools," Doty said. "More students are fleeing public schools for private schools, home schools and charter schools because of values differences. I think if public schools persist in a hard, thick wall of separation of church and state, it does send the wrong message."

mbrown@deseretnews.com

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