Opinion: "How One School District Found Religion" by Emile Lester and Patrick S. Roberts

May 22, 2006

Source: USA Today


On May 22, 2006 USA Today published an opinion piece by religion professors Emile Lester and Patrick S. Roberts: "In 2000, the religiously diverse community [of Modesto in Northern California] took a risk and, in an almost unheard-of undertaking for a public school district, offered a required course on world religions and religious liberty for ninth-graders... To our surprise, students' respect for rights and liberties increased measurably after taking the course. Perhaps more important, the community has embraced the course as a vehicle for fostering understanding, not indoctrination... Modesto, population 190,000, resembles many medium-size U.S. cities. Over the past 40 years, it has made room for an array of immigrants, including Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims. Evangelical 'megachurches' have sprung up alongside mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic denominations and a flourishing Jewish community. Overt incidents of religious prejudice have been rare, but the cultural divide bred mutual suspicion. In 1997, some religious groups in Modesto battled the school over a policy of tolerance for gay and lesbian students. Out of the dispute came a meeting of the minds: A 115-member committee of community members and educators was formed to examine how to provide safe schools for all students. That meant putting an end to bullying, whether based on sexual orientation, race or ethnicity - even religion. The world religions course was one of several initiatives designed to further the 'safe schools' mission. The experiment succeeded. Our surveys indicate it increased students' respect for religious liberty as well as for basic First Amendment rights. One Russian Orthodox boy, for instance, found that the course brought him closer to his neighbors. 'We have a Hindu family living across the street who pray(s) to a statue,' he said. 'I thought it was just plain dumb. But I notice now they had a pretty good reason.'"