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Pluralism and US Religious Schools - 2002-10-20

America's religious pluralism has been a challenge for hundreds of private schools across the United States. Many of these schools were founded years ago by members of a particular religious denomination. But some educational and religious leaders say in an effort to appeal to a wide variety of students, many of these private schools are de-emphasizing their religious origins. As part of VOA's on-going series on religion in America, Maura Farrelly takes a look at how one private school has maintained its religious identity, while welcoming students of other faiths.

"All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing. Alleluia, Alleluia…"

Church services are a weekly affair at the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC. Every Friday morning, more than five hundred girls, ages six through eighteen, file into the National Cathedral in America's capital city. The neo-gothic structure serves as a general house of worship for the nation. It was here that President George Bush, who's a Methodist, proclaimed a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance following the terrorist attacks of September 11. But even though the National Cathedral is open to people of all faiths, it's maintained by the Episcopal Church, a Protestant denomination.

And 16-year-old Betsy Remes, who's Jewish and a member of the chorus, says that's very apparent in the services she attends with her classmates. "Sometimes it is difficult being a choruster, because, for instance, Good Friday services that we sing, I'm sometimes reminded that the Church used to teach that the Jews killed Christ, and that the Jews are bad. And there's another choruster who's Jewish, and she's been really effected emotionally," she says. "So it can be hard treading the line."

But Betsy Remes says even though it can be difficult to sing or hear the overtly Christian lyrics to some of the older hymns, the experience doesn't outweigh the advantages of attending a school with such a fine academic reputation. And she says being at the National Cathedral School has actually helped strengthen her Jewish faith, because school administrators encourage non-Jewish students to learn about Judaism. "It's kind of special being different," she says. I remember in sixth grade, when we were taking a religion class, I showed everyone how to write in Hebrew. Being at NCS has actually reinforced by Jewish faith. It's made me more secure in, about what I believe in. Especially because everyone's like, 'Oh. A Jew. That's cool. That's different. Let's have her explain it to us.'"

In today's economy, most religiously-affiliated schools in the United States can no longer afford to limit enrollment to students who practice the religious traditions of the schools' founders. Institutions like the National Cathedral School, therefore, often have very religiously diverse student bodies. And Headmistress Agnes Underwood says the challenge for her is to create an environment that is unapologetic about the school's Episcopal traditions, while at the same time ensuring that Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic students feel comfortable.

She says the first step is making sure everyone knows what the school is about. "One of the things you do right away is put this out in your mission, so everyone who applies, everyone who comes to teach, knows that you're a Church school," she says. "And we've prepared a brochure in which we talk not only about our mission as a cathedral school, and what that means, but also, what courses we teach in religion, how many chapel services we have, some of the things we value, in terms of being a church school and being able to discuss what we think is right and wrong. We don't teach morality in the abstract. We talk about things as being 'right' or 'wrong'."

But while the National Cathedral School unabashedly teaches an Episcopal notion of 'right' and 'wrong,' Ms. Underwood says she and her colleagues do give students of other religions opportunities to discuss and share their beliefs and traditions. It's this affirmation of religious diversity that some religious leaders say could be dangerous, if it isn't handled properly. "Under the rubric of being sensitive in terms of diversity, and trying to accommodate pluralism, schools have tried to become, at least religiously, all things to all people, and thereby have ceased to become anything to anyone," he says.

Craig Anderson also runs an Episcopal school…and is an Episcopal Bishop in Concord, New Hampshire. He says many private schools were founded, because religious leaders wanted to be able to talk to students about faith and morality in a way that's not permitted in taxpayer-funded public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that any classroom discussion of religion as theology amounts to government sponsorship of religion…and is unconstitutional.

Bishop Anderson says that in an effort to make people of different religious backgrounds comfortable, some private schools have become more like public schools, in that they avoid discussions that link morality with faith. "To divorce morality, to divorce character formation from religious conviction and identity is crazy," he says. "It just doesn't make any sense, because religion carries a culture's values, and is an articulation of it. One cannot understand cultures, or personal identity without understanding spirituality and religious conviction."

Craig Anderson says it's not the job of an Episcopal schoolor any religious school, for that matter, to mold its faith to people who are different--or to avoid territory where religious differences exist. Agnes Underwood agrees that you can't divorce morality from faith, but she also thinks the problem Craig Anderson describes was more common thirty years ago, when religious schools first started accepting students from different religions. "I think we went through a period in the seventies, late sixties, seventies, maybe early eighties, where even church schools thought that the best way to reach out to everyone was to tone down the spiritual and religious nature of their institutions," she says. "And I think we may have come back full-circle. The last twenty years have been so driven by individualism and economic issues, making money and so on, and I think there are a lot of people who think, 'Gosh, there are some other things that are very important.'"

Agnes Underwood says it really isn't that difficult to operate an Episcopal school that's welcoming to people of other faiths, provided you recognizeand emphasize, that all religions share a common belief in a higher power, and a common goal of peace and understanding.

"Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia"

And she says that common goal of peace is an indispensable part of every Friday morning service at the National Cathedral School.