School prayer:
50 years after the ban, God and faith more present than ever

SMU Religious Studies Professor Mark Chancey talks about the important need for religious literacy in an increasingly diverse nation.

By Lee Lawrence

It has been 50 years since the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer. But God and faith are probably present in more ways now than ever in public schools, say law and religion experts and activists.

We've gone from virtual silence about religion in the curriculum and virtually no student religious expression in many schools," says Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center and head of the Religious Freedom Education Project in Washington, D.C., "to today, when social studies and other standards are fairly generous to religion, and students are expressing their faiths in many different ways in many public schools, if not most." . . .

Classes had ended at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, and students were streaming out the door when one stooped to pick up some papers off the floor. Immediately, she recognized that the text was torn from a book that she and 80 percent of the town's residents deem holy. More pages were scattered down the hall, strewn beside the outside walkway, skittering across the parking lot, plastered on the grilles of parked cars. Her tears welling up, she dashed back into the building to stand, arms clamped around torn and crumpled pages, in the doorway of Jodi Ide's classroom. She cried to her teacher: "Someone ripped up the Book of Mormon. I tried to get ... all [the pages]."

The next day, Ms. Ide, herself a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, arranged the desks in a circle. She knew by then that the student responsible was in her class. She also knew that disciplinary action would not get at the root of the problem.

"Help me understand how this would happen," she asked her students. . .

It was no accident that this unfolded in Ide's classroom; it's where Brighton students come to learn about world religions and, for the past two years, discuss worldviews and religious practice with peers as far away as the Philippines and Indonesia. They do this via video-conference as part of Face to Faith, a project of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Faith Foundation.

Programs like this bolster Mark Chancey's conviction that "religious literacy is essential." A professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Mr. Chancey says, "we all need to know about each other as our country becomes more diverse because we all have to get along."

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