Instead of religion in school, educators should focus on learning

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The US Supreme Court’s recent decision on school prayer takes me back to a chilly fall afternoon in 1961. I sat in the stands with my friends and nervously watched our Hillsdale High School football team in San Mateo, California, on the sidelines of a Loss was a championship game against San Bruno’s famously tough Capuchino High School.

There was only a minute left in the game. We were five points up, but the ball was on our five-yard line.

The 25-year-old Hillsdale coach exchanged a look with defensive captain Bob Christopherson. It was time for a communal prayer, an idea that offended my religious sensibilities. The liberal Protestant church to which I belonged frowned upon seeking divine assistance in such circumstances.

No one who knelt for the prayer can remember exactly what was said, but afterwards the Capuchino ball carrier was tackled just outside the goal line. We won 12-7.

I was happy but embarrassed to think that religion and school spirit might have gotten mixed up. I liked the trainer and let the teaching questions slide. I am still trying to resolve the controversy surrounding prayer in schools, which has again become a national issue.

According to the court ruling, activists are urging prayers into schools

My Washington Post colleague Hannah Natanson wrote a remarkable article about the widespread religious involvement in American school life. The Supreme Court’s June 27 ruling in favor of Washington State high school football coach Joseph Kennedy praying after games and being joined by team members is likely to make moments like this even more common.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told Natanson her group has long opposed coaches leading prayers with students at school or school officials scheduling prayers during educational events. Fifty percent of the group’s cases relate to such incidents. Gaylor likened her efforts to hitting a mole.

Some communities don’t think it’s a big deal to talk to God in school. Amy Kruppe, the school principal in Hazel Park, Michigan, told her school board it was unconstitutional for them to start meetings with prayer, but they didn’t stop. Coaches also pray at games, “and nobody says anything about it,” Kruppe told Natanson.

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

Natanson provides examples of educators proposing religious history lessons that educate rather than proselytize. Bill DeFrance, superintendent of Eaton Rapids public schools in Michigan, said the coach-led prayer could be used to learn about other cultures.

He said to Natanson, “I could see some really interesting things, like, ‘Okay, Bill, you’re Hindu. You’ll lead the prayer this week’ and get background information on why Hindus pray.”

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

Christopherson, the Hillsdale defensive back in 1961, recently told me it 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 ourselves and our abilities, not thoughts about winning or beating.” He said the prayer was “psychologically important, but not as a religion.”

The Supreme Court could take up important educational issues again

What struck me most about Hillsdale’s young manager at the time was not his religious beliefs but his passion for football. It’s an American pseudo-religion that I believe in but isn’t covered by the First Amendment.

Previously, the sports teams at our school had little ambition. We won some games and lost others. The new coach hated that. He replaced the team’s old leather helmets, got a camera to record games, organized a parent booster club, did scouting reports on our opponents and shared his detailed notes on what coaches like Vince Lombardi were doing.

He enjoyed it. The team came to his house on Monday nights to watch the feature films and enjoy the cake his wife baked for Player of the Week. I loved the garish posters he had our wildest student artist put up on the dressing room walls touting “DESIRE, DETERMINATION AND GUTS.”

It wasn’t until many years later that it occurred to me that the coach had ways of engaging children similar to those I saw in the nation’s most effective classrooms. A history teacher held teacher-class trivia competitions every Friday to get the kids working as a team. An English teacher ran around his room asking questions, goading the students into reacting and making them feel that together they would discover the truth. A math teacher played Queen’s “We Are the Champions” at the start of each lesson while his students banged on their desks.

I think there are ways to explore religion in school without unconstitutionally picking sides, although it takes experienced teachers to pull this off. It’s worth a try, especially in communities where parents think, as a school official told Natanson, that if the district recognizes LGBTQ history month, it should do something similar with religion.

I’ve never seen the Hillsdale coach have another prayer break. He turned out to be a motivational genius. He coached at a community college and then led the UCLA football team to victory at the Rose Bowl. He was the 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 on the first day of my sophomore year when he handed me a towel in gym class. He looked so young that at first I thought he was a senior making easy money as a teaching assistant. I soon noticed how kind and encouraging he was, even to undersized and awkward kids like me.

A prayer break was something he thought would encourage his players at a critical moment. Finding ways to help young people overcome challenges is what great teachers and coaches do. I am happy for those who are working on how best to achieve this.

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