A hard case for supporters of religious schools

It's getting more and more difficult to generalize about religious schooling in America.  An article in last week's Wall Street Journal reports that Catholic, Jewish, and other faith-based schools are seeing a wave of interest from students of other religions. Christian parents may pick a Jewish or Islamic school for their child (or vice versa) for a wide range of reasons. Some do it because the school has a strong academic program or is less expensive than a secular private school, some simply because they value diversity and want their children to learn about another religion. Somewhat surprisingly, most of the parents profiled in the article seem to be doing it for the religious teachings themselves.

"The basic values are more important to me than the specifics of the religion," explained one Christian parent who sends his son to a Jewish school. A Jewish parent who sends her son to a Jesuit school likes the fact that the school emphasizes "being a better all-around person rather than who is richer or who has the nicest pair of Nikes."  Often parents are seeking schools that can provide moral guidance for their children as an alternative to the "defiantly secular approach of many public schools."

Not everyone is pleased with this trend, the article notes. Traditionalists worry that schools are diluting their religious message in order to raise enrollment.  But while religious schools courting students of different faiths may have their eye on the bottom line, some also believe that diversity is even more important today as religious tensions escalate.

Not all religious schools seek to build bridges between people of different backgrounds, though; in fact, some seem to go out of their way to fan hostile feelings.  In an October 16 column, Marc Fisher of The Washington Post describes conversations he had with students and a principal at the Muslim Community School in Potomac, Maryland, a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC. 

According to Fisher, six young people, all born in this country and all U.S. citizens, told him they did not believe that Osama bin Laden was necessarily the bad guy the president says he is.  "Almost no matter what they were asked," Fisher writes, "the students' answers often included something about how the United States should focus not just on bin Laden's terror network but on 'the real terrorists,' which is their code for Israel, which they refer to as 'the illegitimate Zionist regime.'"

The school's principal, Salahudeen Kareem, was unwilling to denounce bin Laden because he does not trust the U.S. government to judge the evidence, Fisher writes.  "Being cautious doesn't mean we are turncoats," said Kareem, who is 50 and grew up in Washington, DC. "It means we want to wait until there are sufficient facts. I don't know Osama bin Laden. But whatever is said about him, I want it said about the Israeli prime minister. If we're going after terrorism, let's go at it at the roots, not the branches."  (The principal earlier wrote an essay about Israel in a school newsletter in which he said: "This state with its cursed population ... is founded on a racist, warped, cancerous ideology which says Jews are better than other people.")

Some opponents of religious schools will view this school as Exhibit A in the case against vouchers for religious schools, or even the right of parents to send their children to religious schools at their own expense. But the case for religious schooling shouldn't stand or fall on the example of one school, vexing though it may be. As lawyers like to say, "hard cases make bad law." If some religious schools teach appalling lessons, many others produce excellent citizens and are sought out by parents of other faiths for their children. (The same extremes can probably be found among public schools as well.)

In wartime, tensions are high and many people are eager to draw lines in the sand. Hotter heads might call for the state to shut down the Muslim Community School, or at the very least, to make sure that no public dollars go to support it. A better response would be to speak out against the school's message and confront its prejudice with facts and reasoned argument and good judgment. - Marci Kanstoroom

"Faith-Based Schools Open Door to Students of Other Religions," by Nancy Ann Jeffrey, The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2001. (available to subscribers only)

"Muslim Students Weigh Questions of Allegiance," by Marc Fisher, The Washington Post, October 16, 2001.

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