A funny thing happened on the way to the first day of school at Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary School in Wichita, Kansas.
Minneha fourth graders study the five major religions of the world (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, & Buddhism) focusing on the history and geography of the ancient civilizations that gave birth to these religions. To that end, the school personnel crafted a bulletin board explaining the Five Pillars of Islam. Keeping in mind the bulletin board was not encouraging a belief in this faith but simply educating the students about their beliefs.
The Wichita Eagle reported that a parent took a picture of the bulletin board and posted it on Facebook with the sentence, "Prepare to Take America Back."
Of course, in this viral age, the Facebook posting spread quickly across the conservative blogs with other captions exclaiming, "This is a school that banned all forms of Christian prayer...This cannot stand."
Yes, in Wichita, Kansas-the bible belt of the nation, parents don't cotton to such radical notions as learning about the history of other religions except promoting their own faith at school.
And that is exactly the point. It must have been rather shocking for some parents in the district to face the reality that a school was educating students about other religions when the expectation has been one of promoting and upholding only the Christian faith in USD-259.
The Great Plains Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has had a number of concerns about the district for several years. In 2012, AU was notified that the Gideon's were handing out bibles to Coleman Middle students on school grounds. When confronted with the truth, the superintendent brushed it off as if didn't happen. When AU tried to rent a school facility for an event, the paperwork was accidentally "lost" and thus we were not able to access the facility but churches have no problem using the public schools for their purposes after hours.
The Wichita district regularly partners with local churches with special programs and end of the year celebrations. These actions benefit the churches as they have noted on their own blogs stating that students and teachers have come to join their church via school related events.
In November of 2011, Riverside Leadership Magnet Elementary School actually sent their students to a local Christian Church to prepare and celebrate a Thanksgiving meal. As one blogger noted, "While there may have been no proselytizing, a church is a church and religious symbols were no doubt on display." And, for the record, Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday but one celebrated by all Americans.
If students were transported to Mosques to celebrate Ramadan, the uproar would be furious. Of course, that would never be tolerated. USD-259, like so many other public school districts in Kansas and the nation, has created an atmosphere of favoritism towards Christianity and due to this fact; it is little wonder a parent would be shocked to learn education involves learning about other ideas besides their own worldview.
"This is a school that banned all forms of Christian prayer" is just an inflammatory statement, attempting to stir up trouble in the district. Every public school student has the right to pray all day long if they so choose and parents should know this fact. Public schools cannot organize, lead or force students to participate in school sponsored prayer. The Court has ruled that as long as the student is not being disruptive-no one cares if the student is praying over their food, before a test or in the locker room.
What the disgruntled parent of Minneha really would like to see the district implement is allowing the public schools to promote his/her Christian faith. This would not only violate the establishment clause of the US Constitution, but ignoring numerous Supreme Court cases such as Engel v. Vitale These parents could care less about respecting the religious differences of others, or acknowledging that education should be the real mission of schools, not religious worship.
How can we possibly come to understand other people or know why we believe what we believe, if we have not been exposed to other ideas and philosophies? Education, good public school education, allows for students to explore different strains of thought and their history. The Wichita School district must be firm and end the atmosphere of privileging the Christian religion in the district and especially stop indulging the prejudices of those in the district who insist that only their religion is worthy in America. The district maintains that the "Five Pillars of Islam" display will be up again on the bulletin when the unit is taught later in the year. We shall see.
Public school parents should want their children to be exposed to different ideas and philosophies while expecting the district to be neutral when it comes to religion. If a few Minneha parents want to "take back America" they are free to send their children to a religious school where no other idea or notion will be allowed to enter their child's head, and they can grow up thinking everyone else is wrong and should be converted, or will go to hell.
Frankly, students in the district could learn far more important and constructive lessons about humanity if they also studied the Freethought Movement in America, and the philosophy of humanism. As Corliss Lamont wrote, Humanism is the viewpoint that ... "human beings, using their own intelligence and cooperating liberally with one another, can build an enduring citadel of peace and beauty upon this earth.
Dare to dream.