AFTER the 1963 United States Supreme Court decision banning prayer in public schools, discussion of religious ideas, themes, and influences all but disappeared in most American classrooms. Teachers avoid the subject. Textbooks barely mention it. The irony is that the Supreme Court never intended its ruling to have this effect. In his concurring opinion, Justice Arthur Goldberg wrote that ``many of our legal, political, and personal values derive historically from religious teachings'' and thus the court recognized ``teaching about religion, as distinguished from the teaching of religion in the public schools.''
A new curriculum to be introduced next spring in five states won't put religious content into the nation's schools, but it may help educators discover a deeper and more responsible way to discuss religious liberties important in American civic life.
Called ``Living With Our Deepest Differences,'' it was announced last month, and is part of a larger effort by the nonprofit Williamsburg Charter Foundation - a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of leading Americans, including former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The foundation's goal is to bring light instead of heat to the subject of preserving religious liberty in a society that is increasingly diverse.
The course, aimed at Grades 5, 8, and 11, while modest in scope, is ``long overdue,'' says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
``There's been so much scorched earth over school prayer and Darwinian evolution that many people despair of ever having a civil discussion about religious liberty,'' says Robert Kramer, a former Maryland legislator and spokesman for the project. ``We think such a discussion can take place, and schools are a place to learn how.''
Religious values and their intersection with politics, education, and public policy have become a dangerously atrophied and polarized discussion in America, says the curriculum project director, Os Guinness, a lanky British-born religious sociologist formerly with the Brookings Institution.
Schools are the ``storm center'' of the debate, says Dr. Guinness. Drugs, teen pregnancy, abortion, violence, and religious holidays, as well as the origin of life on earth and religion's role in shaping democracy - are all value-laden questions. Different faiths consider them differently.
Further, with new populations bringing new beliefs, with the number of professed secularists increasing from 2 percent to 12 percent in the past 20 years, and with unresolved battles between religion and material science, there is a greater need to be more conscious of how rights of conscience may be expressed. To teach only ``toleration'' isn't enough, Guinness says.
``The religious-liberty clause of the First Amendment is the thing that makes American democracy distinctive,'' he adds. ``People, teachers, need to be comfortable in dealing with these questions.''
Williamsburg Charter members see their course as an entering wedge. It's divided into five parts:
1.The role religion played among those coming to America - from the Pilgrims to the Jewish refusedniks.
2.The dynamic nature of the First Amendment in both protecting and extending religious liberty.
3.The expanding pluralism in America, from the increase of Roman Catholics and Jews in the 19th century to the multiplicity of religions today.
4.The role of religion in social justice - including the religious impulse behind the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement, radical populists in the 1880s, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
5.The responsibilities and challenges posed by religious liberty.
Dr. Henry Johnson of Pennsylvania State University is developing the course, which includes films, a text, and some teacher training. It will be available in 1990 to every school district in the nation.
The idea comes at a moment of increasing interest in school content. The Bradley Commission on improving the teaching of history, for example, recently asked for a more thorough discussion of religion in schools. California is demanding that publishers rewrite history books to include such themes as the origin of modern democracy in the Reformation, as well as the Enlightenment. The push is on for schools to counteract ``values neutrality.''
``There's been an awful lot of pressure to change what's in schools,'' says Bob Munnelly, superintendent of the Reading, Mass., schools. ``It's been easier not to deal with religion, but now we're being asked to return it to its rightful place.''
So far, however, insiders say the project is still short on strategy. How it will negotiate the Byzantine world of education politics is uncertain. School time is already crowded with separate workshops and courses on everything from stress management to AIDS. ``Such a project has to happen by design. It won't happen accidentally,'' says Peter Gunness, headmaster of Buckingham Brown & Nichols, a Cambridge, Mass., private school.
Further, teacher training to get the right balance in class is critical. As Charles Glenn, a Massachusetts education official, himself an evangelical minister, puts it: ``You don't want someone dealing with this subject who really doesn't want to - or feels hostile toward it.''