A field trip taken by students at a public middle school in Wellesley, Mass., to the Islamic Society of Boston Community Center has touched off a heated controversy after a mother who was chaperoning the trip released video footage of some of the six-graders participating in midday prayers at the center’s mosque. (The footage was released via the group Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which, according to the Boston Globe, has been critical of the Islamic center and mosque, New England’s largest, in the past.)
Several organizations have decried the trip for blurring the line between church and state, prompting Wellesley’s school superintendent, Bella Wong, to apologize to parents, saying, “It was not the intent for students to be able to participate in any of the religious practices. The fact that any students were allowed to do so in this case was an error.”
The center insists that the students were not coerced into participating in the prayers, but rather did so of their own volition. And several of the students’ parents have voiced support for the trip as a worthy educational experience. The students had visited the mosque as part of a social studies course, “Enduring Beliefs in the World Today,” in which they study not just Islam, but also Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity; they had already visited a synagogue, went to a gospel-music performance and met with representatives of the Hindu faith.
Setting aside the obvious issues about the Islamaphobia currently raging through our nation, the controversy does raise interesting questions about whether children should learn about religion in public school and how to do so while maintaining the separation between church and state.
Personally, I think there’s value in learning about different religions and beliefs as we would different cultures in school, though I also believe that children should never feel any pressure to participate in religion or prayers in a public school setting. (I love that my son, who attends a New York public elementary school with a huge Muslim population, came home from kindergarten one day and reported what he had learned about Eid, though I squirmed when my daughter, then attending preK at a public elementary school serving a different population, brought home an Easter basket and coloring-book pictures of Easter eggs for which no context was given.)
What do you think? Is there a place in our public schools for educating children about different religions and beliefs? Or is does any treatment of religion in school blur the line between church and state?