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Public schools, private beliefs

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Eric Kayne/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

(Read caption) Members of a dance team presented by the Hindu Student Association prepared for Competition at a Bellaire, Texas, high school.

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P

erception and reality are from different planets. Depending on the commentators you listen to or the news sources you read, for instance, you might believe that religion has been hounded out of American public schools. Alternatively, you might think that the only way people talk about religious differences is with aggressiveness, defensiveness, and misunderstanding.

The reality may surprise you. In her cover story, Lee Lawrence documents the many ways that religion, faith, and prayer are present in the public school systems. In the half century since the Supreme Court banned school prayer, Americans have traveled a path from believing there should be virtually no religious expression in schools to a place where the study of religion is increasingly accepted as part of a student’s normal acquisition of knowledge – and where prayer, discussion of faith, and religious training are as much an option in extracurricular activities as are the science club, pep squad, and 4-H.

In class, students are exploring the varieties of religious experience, the history of religion, and the need to understand other faiths in a diverse society and global economy. Kids do not, however, pray together during class – although nothing has ever prevented an individual from praying on his or her own, as long as it is not required or encouraged by teachers.

Separation of church and state remains a pillar of American life, clearly articulated in the First Amendment to the Constitution. But while the state must not back any particular faith – or even faith itself – it also must not restrict expressions of faith. The First Amendment says Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and goes on to say there shall be no law “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

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