Instead of religion in schools, educators should focus on learning

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s latest ruling on school prayer takes me back to a chilly fall afternoon in 1961. I was in the stands with my friends nervously watching our football team of Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, Calif., on the brink of defeat in the championship game against famed Capuchino High School in San Bruno.

There was only one minute left in the game. We were leading by five points, but the ball was on our 5-yard line.

The 25-year-old Hillsdale coach exchanged a look with defensive captain Bob Christopherson. It was time for a team prayer, an idea that offended my religious sensibilities. The liberal Protestant church I attended frowned upon the idea of ​​asking for divine assistance in such circumstances.

No one kneeling for that prayer can remember exactly what was said, but afterwards ball carrier Capuchino was tackled short of the goal line. We won 12-7.

I was happy, but embarrassed to think that religion and school spirit could have been confused. I liked the coach and I let the doctrinal questions slide. I am still trying to unravel the controversy over prayer in schools which has once again become a national issue.

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My Washington Post colleague, Hannah Natanson, has written a remarkable article on the widespread religious involvement in American school life. The June 27 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Washington state high school football coach Joseph Kennedy — who prayed after games and was joined by team members — will likely make such moments even more common.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told Natanson that her group has long fought against coaches who lead prayers with students at school or school officials who schedule prayers during educational events. Fifty percent of the group’s workload involves such incidents. Gaylor compared her efforts to hitting a mole.

Some communities do not see talking to God at school as a problem. Amy Kruppe, the superintendent of schools in Hazel Park, Michigan, told her school board it was unconstitutional for them to open meetings with a prayer, but they didn’t stop. Coaches also lead prayers at games “and nobody says anything about it,” Kruppe told Natanson.

What should people like me who are uncomfortable with state-sanctioned religiosity do? Will spending even more time and money on legal resistance help? Schools have to focus on learning, which is not going well these days. It will be some time before we again have a Supreme Court favorable to our views. Perhaps there are ways to bring religious issues into schools that will unite us rather than divide us.

Natanson gives examples of educators offering courses in the history of religions that do not proselytize but educate. Bill DeFrance, superintendent of Eaton Rapids Public Schools in Michigan, said coach-led prayer could serve as a way to learn about other cultures.

He told Natanson, “I got to see some really interesting things like, ‘Okay, Bill, you’re a Hindu. You lead the prayer this week and get insights into why Hindus pray.

I oppose religious intrusions that hurt children and offend parents. That doesn’t seem to be a problem in Hazel Park, where Kruppe estimated the population to be 50 percent white, 50 percent black, and, as far as she could tell, nearly 100 percent Christian.

Christopherson, Hillsdale’s defensive captain in 1961, told me recently that this was the first and only time the team had what he called a “prayer/meditation” during a game. The referees looked surprised. As in the pre-game prayers, he said, he shared “essential thoughts about us and our abilities, not thoughts about winning or beating”. He said prayer “was important psychologically, but not as a religion.”

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What impressed me most about the young Hillsdale coach at the time was not his religious views, but his enthusiasm for football. It’s an American pseudo-religion that I believe in but is not covered by the first amendment.

Previously in our school, sports teams had little ambition. We won a few games and lost others. The new coach hated it. He replaced the team’s old leather helmets, got himself a camera to record games, organized a reminder club for parents, prepared scouting reports on our opponents and shared his detailed notes on what coaches like Vince Lombardi did.

He made it fun. The team came to his house on Monday nights to watch their match movies and dig into the cake his wife baked for Player of the Week. I loved the garish posters he had our craziest student artist put up on the locker room walls, touting “DESIRE, DETERMINATION AND GUTS.”

It didn’t occur to me until several years later that the coach had ways to excite the kids that resembled what I saw in the most efficient classrooms in the country. A history teacher held instructor-versus-class quizzes every Friday to get the kids working as a team. An English teacher rushed into her room to ask questions, prompting the students to react and making them feel that together they were discovering the truth. A math teacher played Queen’s “We Are the Champions” at the start of each class while his students pounded their desks.

I think there are ways to explore religion in school without taking sides in an unconstitutional way, although it will take trained teachers to do that. It’s worth a try, especially in communities where parents think, as one school official told Natanson, that if the district recognizes LGBTQ History Month, it should do something about it. similar with religion.

I’ve never seen the Hillsdale coach have another prayer timeout. He turned out to be a motivational genius. He coached at a community college and then led the UCLA football team to victory in the Rose Bowl. He was head coach of NFL teams in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Kansas City.

His name is Dick Vermeil and he is now 85 years old. His St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl in 2000. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 6.

I met Vermeil the first day of my second year, when he handed me a towel in physical education class. He looked so young that I first thought he was a senior getting easy credit as a teacher’s aide. I quickly noticed how kind and encouraging he was, even with undersized and clumsy children like me.

A prayer timeout was something he thought would encourage his players at a critical time. Finding ways to help young people overcome challenges is what great teachers and coaches do. I encourage those who are working on the best way to achieve this.


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