Once, the American school day often began with a reading from the Bible, but public schools now are prohibited from sponsoring any form of religious observance.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the early 1960s that those practices violate the Constitutional ban on establishing a state religion.
The ban, and efforts to return prayer to public schools, have been a source of controversy ever since. So many school districts have avoided any activity or course that even mentions religion. But not Modesto, California. It is the only district in the country where students are required to take - and pass - a course on world religions.
Talking about prayer
Johansen High School in Modesto, California, sounds like any other, until the sacred Hindu sound - "ommmmmm" - vibrates from history teacher Yvonne Taylor's classroom. Today, she's talking about Hindu ideas of the cycle of death and rebirth.
This nine-week course for ninth graders teaches the fundamental beliefs of Christians, Muslims and Confucianists, as well as Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jews - all tied in with the history of religious liberty in the United States.
Taylor quizzes her class on the meaning of separation of church and state. She calls on Vanessa, who answers, "Like, the government doesn't have the right to tell you, 'You have to follow a certain religion.'"
"So can I lead you in prayer?" Taylor follows up.
The class responds, "No!"
But Taylor's next question, "But can we talk about prayer?" receives a resounding "Yeah!" from the students.
Religious leaders involved in creating curriculum
When the teachers first talked about developing this course eight years ago, they feared strong resistance from the local conservative Christian community. There already had been conflict: When administrators included gay students in a safe-school policy, conservative Christians accused them of challenging their religious beliefs, which hold that homosexuality is a sin.
To avoid other conflicts with religious groups, the school board called in Charles Haynes, a mediator from Washington, D.C.'s First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan foundation that promotes free speech.
"The challenge from the beginning was to make sure that the various religious communities understood that this wasn't an effort to just hold hands and say, 'We're all going to get along,'" Haynes explains.
Instead, Haynes took action. He gathered together Christians, both conservative and liberal, and other religious leaders from the community - and asked them and the school district to jointly develop a course on world religions.
"The community has to be informed, has to be involved," he stressed, noting that if everyone understood the others' faiths better, conflicts might decrease.
Teachers go to great lengths to avoid bias
Teacher Jennie Sweeney led the world religions curriculum development. She says the panel went to extraordinary lengths to ensure there wasn't even a hint of favoring one religion over another.
"One of the things that we did do when we looked at the textbook was actually count the number of pages that were given to each of the traditions, and they were equal. Because we knew that somebody would count!"
In the end, Haynes says, it worked.
"So when schools begin teaching about various religions, if it's done well, [it] actually gains community support."
He says Modesto's approach allowed the community to accept and embrace the course.
Students say class strengthens their beliefs
The success of this unique program has been noted by education experts around the country. Emile Lester of the College of William and Mary in Virginia recently co-authored a study of 400 students who took the course. He reports that the course strengthened their commitment to their own faith and moral values.
"We had Hindu students and conservative Christian students telling us that the course helped them to realize how their religion was distinct from others, and therefore it gave them a greater knowledge and pride in their own religion."
Modesto's effort is still unique in this country. Many secular and religious groups insist there's no role for any form of religion in public education, that even a survey course violates the Constitution.
So if teaching religion in a public school is so controversial, why do it? Yvonne Taylor says her students will graduate with a better understanding of our increasingly multicultural society.
"They're taking a greater world view of the faiths, of their friends, and their neighbors and the United States. But also the idea of respect of differences."
If other school districts want to start their own course, she says, they need to involve religious and secular community leaders from the very beginning. And, she adds, select teachers who will teach, not preach.