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Despite the separation of church and state, Iowa explores introducing religion in public schools

By: Catie Wiltanger

Subjects like the humanities are difficult to teach without references to religious texts and discussions about the influences of religion on various cultures, which can cause controversy in the public school system. But some people want religion to play an even greater role in public schools by introducing activities like prayer in the classroom.

According to the ACLU, students have the right to pray individually or in groups as long as it is not disruptive, and they are allowed to distribute religious literature to their classmates. However, according to The Washington Post, students must keep their prayer private and can not force others to participate. Students are allowed to express different types of religion “in the form of reports, homework, and artwork,” but teachers cannot push their religious views onto students.

In January, the Iowa Statehouse introduced House File 2031, a bill that would establish Bible literacy courses in public schools, according to the Des Moines Register. The courses would aim to teach the cultural and historical significance of the Bible. The proposed course would be an elective high school class that would be classified as social studies. As of April 2018, the Iowa House has not moved forward on passing this bill, but Representative Mary Mascher, a Democrat representing Iowa City, has suggested that she would introduce an amendment to create classes teaching other religious texts, such as the Quran.

Terry Gioffredi, a government teacher at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been teaching for 10 years and hasn’t noticed any change in students’ attitude toward religion. Gioffredi said he believes student prayer at a place like his high school’s graduation wouldn’t be received well because outward expression of religion is frowned upon at Roosevelt. There are some religious groups at Roosevelt, like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but to his knowledge this group does not cause any problems with any of the other approximately 1,700 students.

Brian Geary is a recently elected school board member for the Olathe Public School District in Olathe, Kansas. As a member of the school board of the largest district in the Kansas City metro area, Geary said he believes that after the 2016 presidential election “people are more willing to say that prayer should be in the schools because it will make America great again,” because “that’s how it used to be…in the good old days.” Because there are around “50 different religions in [Olathe School District] high schools,” Geary’s not sure why religion would ever be brought into the district because of how offensive it could get.

Geary hasn’t had to deal with much religious controversy in his short term as a school board member. Although the board gets “several emails and phone calls saying that we should bring back prayer to schools” and other “really wacky crap,” he said the only large religious issue in the district has been a recent protest at one of the high schools. The Westboro Baptist Church is going to be protesting there soon, and many people in the district are not very happy about this. However, the church has protested at many local high schools, and although there are many complaints about this, there has never been that much of a problem.

Some current students acknowledge religion as a big presence in their schools. Brian Beach is a junior at Olathe North High School in Kansas, and he is involved in Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The organization only meets once a week, but Beach believes religion shapes daily life at Olathe North.

Religion has never made him personally uncomfortable during the school day, but he has seen “well-meaning people try to [convert] Christians at school by saying things that come out sounding rather self-righteous and quite frankly annoying.” Although “students don’t exactly encourage religious activity,” they don’t mind religious discussion “as long as it isn’t somehow laced with bigotry,” he said. However, he said he believes “when religion is incorporated into schools in a healthy and beneficial way, it can help students to better understand each other and create a safe environment for all to practice whatever they believe.”

However, he also said he believes it’s important to avoid religion being “incorporated into schools in a detrimental fashion, [where] one religion is taught as being superior to another.” If this were to happen at a school like Beach’s, “some students may become angry and retaliate, creating a bigger divide, or perhaps even worse, become emotionally hurt because a key part of their identity is criticized as being wrong,” he said.

Although there are some people who would like to see more religion in schools, others have concerns over the prevalence of religion in schools.. Many think the most important thing we can do is to teach students to become more accepting of peers of different religions.

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