The recent article on the Fields of Faith program at Naples High School (by staff writer Katherine Albers) was disturbing to me and, no doubt, to many others.
Cultivating faith is among our country’s proudest achievements. We do it very well here, better than many places. For me, it has been my life’s work. Still, the way it has been pursued in this instance is a serious problem, and here is why:
When we do not have a clear separation of church and state in our public schools, minority students such as Jewish teenagers in my community are made to feel alienated and excluded in their own school. By the same token, majority students do not receive an accurate or realistic picture of the world.
Contrary to what some believe, religion does indeed have a place in our schools. Schools need to be teaching about religion, but not selling it or practicing it. That is the role of religious institutions, and the rightful prerogative of parents. Students do need to learn about different religions. They live in a very complex world. A program such as this one, however, distorts their view of the world because it oversimplifies it. It makes it seem that the whole world is Christian. Yet we know that this is not the case, not even here in our own country.
Fields of Faith was scheduled as an extracurricular activity. Nonetheless, it was coercive in a subtle way. Coercion need not be obvious or heavy-handed when it encourages an atmosphere of conformity among teenagers. I have no doubt that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the respected Protestant group that sponsored this event, does a lot of good. It enjoys considerable support. However, its program was held under the auspices of our public school system which all taxpayers support. In a free society, citizens may legitimately hold certain expectations of how the business of education is conducted.
Is it possible to have a total separation of church and state? I seriously doubt it. It is hard to consider any subject taboo in a public setting that prizes free inquiry and free speech. No one can dictate what people ought not to talk about or think about. Spiritual expression is a fundamental human need. Religion suffuses our public consciousness, even among those who do not subscribe to any religious beliefs.
Church and state have never enjoyed a totally clean separation. Religion permeates our music, our art, our language, our civic life and our calendar.
Indeed, there is a very large gray zone. I served as a chaplain in the Air Force during the Vietnam conflict. Chaplains are military officers whose salaries are paid by taxpayers. My job description was very clear: I was to serve as a rabbi to Jewish personnel and a chaplain to everyone else. Priests and ministers had similar charges. The system worked. Did it infringe on church/state prerogatives? Perhaps some thought it did. Still, we were valued, needed and appreciated because we performed a necessary task.
The U.S. Congress has a chaplain. Our community hospital here in Naples has a chaplain, as well as a fine chaplaincy program. The chaplains bring messages of kindness and compassion and consolation to those who need it and want it. They deal with grown-ups, people who know their own beliefs and wants and needs. It is a different matter with high-school students who are struggling to form identities. A public school is no place for religious transformation. Religious values are best instilled by families.
I am concerned about protecting our children. Experience has shown that whenever the majority exercises its power, minorities are marginalized. All of our children deserve to be comfortable in public school. It is not a favor to them; it is their right. In this country the majority rules, but the minority is protected. That’s the beauty of the American way, our Constitution and the very values we hold so dear.
Perman is rabbi emeritus and interim senior rabbi of Temple Shalom of Naples. He is also a trustee of NCH Healthcare System.