Church-state debate is brewing as students settle into classrooms

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WASHINGTON — In Kansas, the state school board decides to remove evolution from its science curriculum.

In Cleveland, a federal judge throws parents and students into a state of turmoil when he blocks a state-funded school voucher program that lets students attend private or parochial schools at taxpayer expense — and then reverses his decision.

In Mississippi, school officials bar a student from displaying a Star of David symbol in class and then change their policy concerning "gang symbols" in the face of a public outcry.

Elsewhere around the country, school districts contemplate posting the Ten Commandments to help counter what they see as a lapse in morality.

As the 1999-2000 school year kicks into gear, no ground has proved more fertile in the ongoing debate over the constitutional separation of church and state than America's public schools.

While church-state watchdogs say there is no evidence of any trend linking the disparate controversies that have been playing out across the country, such issues appear to have gained a higher profile in recent months.

In recent years, prayer in public schools and during graduation ceremonies has been the primary source of church-state contention. Now issues such as school vouchers and displaying the Ten Commandments — topics that are playing out in both the political and educational arenas — have been providing additional grist for the church-state mill.

Some experts believe that recent incidents of school violence provided the impetus behind some of the recent activity. But in many ways there is little new about the debate over religion in schools.

"Adults have been playing these games with children for a very long time," said Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress.

Schools have long provided a testing ground for many of the most divisive issues on the national scene, Stern said, pointing to the battles fought over segregation, women's equality and multiculturalism.

"If you're going to fight about the values that the government has and that are spoken in the name of society, the only place that surfaces in any systematic way is in the schools."

Most experts say the recent attention to religion in schools is simply part of the normal ebb and flow of the debate.

"These issues kind of wax and wane," said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

"Sometimes there will be a few months or a few years when the issues aren't so important, then suddenly you'll have a dozen different fronts," he added. "Right now we're just at one of those points where there's a lot of discussion on the issue."

The recent spate of violence in schools — particularly the massacre in Littleton, Colo., in April — may have a lot to do with that.

In the wake of the shooting spree and other incidents of gun violence, elected officials around the country have been pushing the Bible as a solution to what they say is a breakdown in morality.

School board officials in Kansas made no explicit mention of moral concerns in voting in August to delete any references to evolution from the state's recommended science curriculum and its standardized tests. But some observers believe that the decision reflects parental worries that their children are growing up without an agreed-upon moral compass.

Others see a larger trend.

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs, sees the focus on religious issues as a reaction to what he calls a longstanding "anti-religion" bias in schools — an attitude he believes is at odds with the fact that most people in this country are religious.

"A lot of this has to do with the fact that the pendulum swung much too far in one direction, which is that religion across the board was really driven out of the schools, and there's still a bureaucratic suspicion, if not antipathy, toward religion," Diament said.

Now, he said, the pendulum is swinging back because parents have become "frustrated" by seeing "such a central part of their lives trod upon and sometimes abused in their kids' schools."

Other Jewish observers see it differently.

"One of the things that I think a lot of these issues have in common is that they're all instances in which religious issues are being advanced for political purposes," said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

He pointed to the juvenile justice bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year as an example of elected officials "trying to play political games with our first freedom."

The measure, which lawmakers said was aimed at instilling children with traditional values, permits schools to display the Ten Commandments in schools and other public places.

The measure stands little chance of becoming law because the Senate has not approved it and President Clinton is likely to veto any such legislation.

Meanwhile, most church-state watchdogs emphasize that they are not calling for America's public schools to be "religion-free zones."

In fact, most continue to support a wide variety of privately initiated religious activities in accordance with a set of guidelines drafted five years ago by the AJCongress together with a coalition of religious and public policy groups.

The guidelines, intended to clarify permissible activity in order to help schools avoid divisive debates over religious issues in cases in which the law is clear, have since been updated and circulated by the Clinton administration.

While the guidelines delineate, for example, that students cannot be compelled to pray and that religion cannot be promoted in schools, they also make clear that students are permitted to pray individually and that teachers may teach about religious contributions to civilization.

"I think these guidelines have gone a long way toward addressing that confusion," said Pelavin, formerly of the AJCongress.

But he added, "one of the things we've said all along is that in a country this size, there are still going to be school officials that get it wrong."