When it comes to religion in public schools, there are serious questions we should be talking about: What should schools teach about the world’s major beliefs? At what age should children be exposed to that information? And what happens when parents complain about their kids learning information that contradicts their family’s beliefs?
Education journalist Linda K. Wertheimer explores these questions in her new book Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance (Beacon Press, 2015):
In the excerpt below, Wertheimer shares the story of parents who couldn’t handle their son being taught about the basic tenets of Islam:
Liz and Larry Karp were shocked when their son, Benjamin, came home from his first-grade class with worksheets and a quiz about the three main world religions. Benjamin’s mother simply didn’t think a first grader should be quizzed on what the Koran was or on the names of various religions’ prophets. She considered it inappropriate for grade school, and she and her husband were particularly worried that lessons about religion would confuse their son because they were Messianic Jews. The Karps, who met while both were in the Air Force, chose the religion as a couple. She had grown up attending a Church of Christ congregation and already knew Jesus as lord. Larry Karp grew up in an interfaith family; his father was Jewish and his mother was Christian. Messianic Jews typically are Christians who believe Jesus is the messiah but also embrace many tenets of Judaism. Liz Karp described herself as a Christian who is Torah observant. Her husband, who wore a tallit under his clothes and a yarmulke, told me he retained a connection to his Jewish roots.
The Karps have made a religious life for their son at home and at their congregation, L’chaim B’Yeshua, which means “To life in Jesus.” On Saturdays, Benjamin studies at home with his father using a Bible written in Hebrew and English that has both the Old and New Testaments. I visited with the family in their living room, which could have been my own given all of the Judaica. On the wall was a painting of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and a shofar and candleholders for Shabbat rested on the mantel. The Karps felt their son’s elementary school was taking the responsibility for teaching about religion out of parents’ hands. Upset about the first-grade worksheets, they spoke to Benjamin’s teacher, and he was excused from the doing the work on religions in class. I asked Benjamin what he did instead. He told me he put his head down on his desk or did crossword puzzles. His voice had the soprano sound of a young boy, but his words were those of an older soul. He was, in fact, a year younger than most of his peers because he had started kindergarten at age four.
In second grade, Benjamin brought home coloring pages about Hindu gods, and his parents intervened again. In religious school, Benjamin had been learning that there was only one God and that he was not supposed to even speak of other gods. It gave the young boy the jitters to hear his teacher talk about Hindus’ belief in multiple gods with different powers. His parents complained and Benjamin’s second-grade teacher gave him alternative assignments. They asked for accommodations again during the annual winter concert. As Messianic Jews, the Karps did not believe in celebrating Christmas because they viewed it as a pagan holiday. So when the second grade sang Christmas songs, Benjamin stepped behind the stage curtain. He rejoined the chorus when they sang a few songs about Hanukkah. He liked that part, and he was even happier when his teacher let him talk about Hanukkah in the classroom and explain the meaning of the four letters on a dreidel. But he felt uneasy when required to learn about other religions. By the time he finished second grade, he and his parents had grown increasingly frustrated at the focus on learning about world religions at Minneha. For the Karps, the worst was to come.
On August 14, 2013, his first day as a third grader, Benjamin walked into Minneha and saw a huge bulletin board with an orange background on his way to his class. The seven-year-old’s eyes widened at the sight of white pillars with the heading “Five Pillars of Islam.”
The fourth-grade teachers had put out bulletin-board displays to prepare for upcoming units and this bulletin board was blank except for its title and design. In upcoming weeks, the plan was for the fourth graders to fill the bulletin board with projects on Islam. Benjamin couldn’t believe a big display on Islam was there on the first day of school. He came home and told his mother it upset him. But he could not explain quite why.
The next day, Liz Karp went to Minneha, took a photo of the bulletin board, and told the assistant principal that the display made her son uncomfortable. She demanded to know why this display was in the main hallway. “Is this becoming like an Islamic school?” she asked. The administrator told her the display was for the fourth grade, scheduled to soon learn about the spread of Islam as part of history. That did not ease the mother’s concerns. She could not understand why the school had to put up such a loud display and wanted to know what was taught about Islam. She wanted to make sure that the school was also teaching children about what she considered the dark side of Islam and the Muslims’ hatred of Jews, in particular. Would the school, for example, teach the children that if they didn’t bow to Allah they would be considered infidels, Liz Karp asked the administrator? She wanted to know, too, whether the school would teach the children that the Koran says to kill all infidels, and that one of Islam’s precepts called for annihilating the Jewish faith. The assistant principal told the mother that no, the children would not be taught that.
Dissatisfied, Liz Karp told the school she would take the matter to the superintendent. It wasn’t just their son’s discomfort that grated on the Karps. They believed the school was omitting critical information about Islam, namely, the sixth pillar, which the family said refers to jihad, the annihilation of the infidels. Every class I had observed, whether in elementary, middle, or high school, referred to five pillars, the widely held belief within Islam. The Karps were fervent in their belief that a sixth pillar had to be included. When the family didn’t hear back from Wichita’s superintendent, Liz Karp e-mailed a copy of the photo to a friend, also a state representative. He e-mailed the photo to a handful of other lawmakers, and the photo of the bulletin board display spread across the Internet. Once again, a school came under siege.
A group called Prepare to Take America Back posted the photo on its Facebook page with a heading “Students at Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary school in Wichata [sic] were met with this their first day. This is a school that banned all forms of Christian prayer. This cannot stand.” More than 162,000 people liked the post on Facebook. Bare Naked Islam, which uses the subtitle “It isn’t Islamophobia when they really ARE trying to kill you,” became one of many blogs and websites that reran the photo and lambasted the school. Hate e-mails, often laced with profanity, began flowing into the school and into school district headquarters. “Where the hell do you get off banning Christianity for Islam, you anti-America pieces of shit?” one person wrote in an e-mail sent from an iPhone to the school district. “You might as well hand them AK47s and strap a bomb to them… May you all burn in hell.” Yet another e-mailer wanted to know how Minneha could “promote that satanic cult of Islam in your school.”
Hope, the principal, had worked in education for forty years and had never experienced anything so venomous. That the Karps had started it surprised and frustrated her. She felt the school had accommodated the family’s concerns from the moment they first complained. The principal was the main recipient of hate mail and threats. One day, she received an envelope addressed with beautiful handwriting and opened it to find photos of people hurting each other and a letter with nasty words directed at her. She also received boxes from anonymous sources. The school system put extra security outside the school for weeks, and Hope handed over the boxes, which the security guards opened and took away. One box had videotapes showing vile acts supposedly committed by Muslims.
Faith Ed is available online and in bookstores beginning today.
Excerpted from Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance by Linda K. Wertheimer (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.