Fall 2011 Symposium: Religion in the Public Schools: Possibilities, Pitfalls and Practices

Basic knowledge about world religions, including Christianity, is essential for responsible citizenship today. Yet many Americans know little about each other's faiths – and often their own. This reality suggests that we need more and better instruction about religion in our public schools. Yet widespread misunderstanding of what the Constitution does and does not allow often gets in the way. Public school officials often face difficult tensions as they seek to honor students' and teachers' diverse religious interests while taking care not to officially promote religion in violation of the First Amendment.

Virginia Wesleyan College celebrates its 50th Anniversary during the 2011-2012 academic year, and the Fall 2011 Symposium is part of that celebration. Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale (1962) that public schools violated the First Amendment by beginning the school day with a state-sponsored nondenominational prayer. The following year, in Abington School District v. Schempp, the Court invalidated mandatory Bible readings at the beginning of each school day. These decisions have had profound and lasting impact on the teaching of religion in public schools. This Symposium explores their legacy by examining some of the legal and pedagogical challenges for public schools today.


Charles_Haynes_photoFrom Battleground to Common Ground: Religious Liberty in Public Schools

Wednesday, October 5, 2011
7:30 p.m., Monumental Chapel
Charles C. Haynes, Ph.D., Director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and Senior Scholar at the First Amendment Center

There is more student religious expression in public schools today – and more attention to religion in the curriculum – than at any time since the 19th century. Yet lingering conflicts over Bible elective courses, student religious expression before captive audiences, and the teaching of evolution remind us of how much work remains to be done. How can we build on the common ground we have achieved to ensure that all public schools become First Amendment schools?

Negotiating the Creationism/Intelligent Design Dilemma: A Historical Approach

Lisle_Dalton_photoThursday, October 27, 2011
11:00 a.m., Monumental Chapel
Lisle Dalton, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Hartwick College

Teaching about evolution in the United States has never been just about the science. Evolutionary ideas and their discontents continue to figure prominently in ongoing debates about the role of religion in public life. Spurred by the activism of religious conservatives, anti-evolution views such as creationism and intelligent design poll surprisingly well, and have done so for decades. The dispute is complicated and has gone through many phases, ranging from high profile legal cases like the Scopes Trial of 1925 to less conspicuous (but often very far reaching) struggles over curricula and textbooks. How might teachers and school administrators negotiate the divide between well-established scientific standards in biology and popular calls to include alternatives in public school curricula? This presentation will argue for an approach that combines the history of science and American religious history.


When Schools Silence the Bible: The Legal and Political Challenges of the King James Version

Thursday, November 10, 2011
11:00 a.m., Monumental Chapel
Craig S. Wansink, Ph.D., Professor of Religious Studies, Virginia Wesleyan College, and
Brandon Nichols, VWC Class of 2012

On the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the King James Version of the Bible, this tag-team presentation focuses on some of the political and legal challenges involved with this translation and its use within schools. How has the Bible functioned in schools, how might it function, and how has the KJV translation itself complicated these issues?


Ritual as Performance, Performance as Ritual: Religious Programs and Prayers in the Public School

Eric_Mazur_photoThursday, November 17, 2011
11:00 a.m., Monumental Chapel
Eric M. Mazur, Ph.D., Gloria and David Furman Associate Professor of Judaic Studies, Virginia Wesleyan College

Where is the line between proper and improper—or between constitutional and unconstitutional—religious behavior in public schools? When is it okay for students and teachers to be religious or for schools to permit religious behavior? This presentation will examine these questions in the context of non-curricular and extra-curricular activities such as "morning exercises," musical programs and artistic performances, sporting events, and graduation ceremonies.