Back to school means back to culture wars for Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary School in Wichita, Kan.
On the very first day of school, someone snapped a photo of a bulletin-board display in the hallway featuring the Five Pillars of Islam and then posted it on Facebook.
“This is a school that banned all forms of Christian prayer,” said the caption under the photo. “This can not stand.”
The Islam display went viral, migrating from the “Prepare to Take America Back” page on Facebook to like-minded pages and websites. Islamophobia is a cottage industry on the Internet.
School officials were immediately inundated with complaints from gullible and misinformed people who apparently believe the canard that public schools indoctrinate kids in Islam – and persecute Christians.
I wish I could report that Minneha administrators faced down the Facebook smears and courageously defended their bulletin-board display. But sadly, the school surrendered to ignorance and fear and removed the Five Pillars of Islam display – ostensibly to “alleviate the distraction.”
After caving in, the school issued a statement explaining that the missing display actually had an educational purpose:
“Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are all taught in a historical context of their study of the world to understand the place of religion and religious ideas in history.”
As it turns out, a bulletin board in another part of the school features an image of the Last Supper as part of teaching about the religious art of the Renaissance. Other religious images and beliefs are featured on bulletin boards at other times of the year. These inconvenient facts were left out of the Facebook posting.
Imagine, for a moment, that instead of singling out Islam, someone had posted a photo of the Last Supper display and attacked the school for promoting Christianity. I guarantee that the same “take back America” crowd would have been first in line to defend the right of the school to put up the Christian image.
Minneha administrators and teachers should have stood their ground.
The school’s curriculum, Core Knowledge, is an outstanding and rigorous program of study based on the work of scholar E.D. Hirsch. Among other things, students are introduced to the world’s religions at a young age, learning about basic beliefs, practices, symbols and holidays.
Bulletin boards can and should feature temporary displays about what students are studying in the classroom about religions. Such teaching about religions is not only constitutional; it is essential for giving students the understanding of the role of religion in history and society necessary for a good education and citizenship in a diverse society.
Moreover, teaching about religions in public schools (as distinguished from religious indoctrination, which is unconstitutional) contributes to understanding across differences and counters the ignorance at the root of the controversy in Wichita.
Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary School is doing exactly what public schools are supposed to be doing in teaching about Islam, Christianity and other faiths in ways that are constitutionally and academically sound.
Moreover, public schools – including Minneha – have not “banned all forms of Christian prayer.” Under current law, students are free to pray alone or in groups during the school day, as long as their prayers don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.
Removing the Five Pillars display, of course, doesn’t mean that the school will cease teaching about religions in the classroom (at least I hope not). The school has indicated that the display might go back up later in the fall when the unit on Islam is being taught. That remains to be seen.
But for now, the suddenly empty space on the bulletin board sends a chilling message to students, parents, and teachers at Minneha and other public schools: Study about religions in a public school – no matter how fair and objective – can get you into trouble.
When ignorance trumps knowledge, we are all in trouble.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: religiousfreedomeducation.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org