Wrestling with religion

By Marsha Sutton

Feedback from a story in the June 9 issue of this newspaper disputed the charges made by the president of the Western Center for Law & Policy that the San Dieguito Union High School District discriminates against Christian students.

One woman wrote, “It is absolutely beyond the pale to suggest that somehow there exists an anti-Christian bias in the district.” She cited several instances of one San Dieguito middle school in Encinitas “absolutely bending over backwards to accommodate district Christians.”

This parent, who insisted on anonymity, said her child’s seventh-grade science lessons on evolution were incomplete at best, skewed to marginalize Charles Darwin at worst. She was agitated that one science teacher claimed the district “prohibits” the teaching of evolution as a proven and widely accepted scientific theory.

District officials contest this, saying no such prohibition even remotely exists. And certainly it does not. But individual teachers, department heads or principals, on their own, may have deferred on more than one occasion to vocal factions with the monetary means and legal skills to twist arms and push personal agendas behind the scenes.

In another example, a reader claimed that school clubs favoring Christian students were supported by Associated Student Body money, and that advisers of these clubs were often fervent Christian teachers who intimidated less religious students unwittingly enticed to the lunchtime meetings with free pizza and snacks.

The district responded by saying these extra-curricular problems may have existed in the past, but standards now in place bar any favoritism, perceived or otherwise, of one religion over any other.

Add to this pro-Christian/anti-Christian debate the ongoing controversy over the language in SDUHSD history textbooks that some claim unfairly and inaccurately favors Islam, and one wonders how district officials, pulled off-course at every turn by special interests representing narrow perspectives, are managing to maintain equilibrium. Appeasing all sides is a Herculean task.

Book banning

Religious challenges to public schools come in all shapes and sizes. A few parents in the Del Mar Union School District at Ocean Air School this past spring objected to the required reading of a fifth-grade historical novel titled “My Brother Sam is Dead.”

Based on religious grounds, one parent wanted the book banned because it used such phrases as “son of a bitch,” “Jesus” as a swear word, and “God damn.”

I was intrigued enough to read the book, which is a first-person account narrated by a young boy living in Connecticut whose family is caught up in the Revolutionary War. It’s a powerful tale that incorporates historical facts into the fictional lives of young Tim Meeker and his older brother Sam who joined the American forces to fight the British.

At one point, Tim says to his brother, “Jesus, Sam, Jesus, they’re down there and they’re going to kill father …” Then on the same page Tim calls his brother a son of a bitch. Throw in a handful of “Goddamns” and that’s about all you’ve got.

“We might as well have a South Park episode teach them about the colonial times,” this parent said about the book.

Granted, I don’t believe the profanity added anything significant to the thrust of the story, but it surely didn’t detract from the overall message that war is brutal, hard-fought and ideologically confusing for children.

Language, including the colorful and blasphemous, reflects values and conveys prevailing attitudes and morality. A sprinkling of minimally used swear words that may offend the strongly religious quite possibly makes the story more real for children who, in fifth grade, have surely heard these words used in this context before.

Although history is not always pretty or something to be proud of, book banning is a slippery slope. Hundreds of years ago, slavery was common, we slaughtered native Americans, parents commonly beat their children for misbehavior, and women had few rights. Do we hide these facts or face our past head-on, with wisdom gained over the centuries?

Good historical novels bring the past to life by creatively weaving imaginative characters into historically accurate settings and events. There’s no better way to teach history, other than perhaps an actual time machine.

Thankfully, Ocean Air principal Ryan Stanley refused to ban the book, offering parents who objected an alternate book for their children to read. He noted that “My Brother Sam is Dead” is an award-winning children’s novel overwhelmingly recommended by Del Mar literacy leaders for the district’s core literature list, to support the teaching of the Revolutionary War in fifth grade.

Parents who review what their children read and stay closely involved in their education should be applauded, and my reluctance to support their agenda in no way denigrates their good intentions.

But banning books for whatever reason is a dangerous precedent. Good for Del Mar for not removing the book from the reading list.

Warts and all

Our children need to learn about the world’s religions, cultural diversity, real science, and history, warts and all, without partiality or modern filters that distort the truth.

But let’s give our school districts a break. In general, they’re doing a pretty damn (dare I say that?) good job.

When administrators are forced to expend time and money dealing with challenges over religious issues in public schools, we run the risk that litigation-scared districts may eventually decide to eliminate all potentially contentious subject matter from public education, to avoid conflict. And that would be a monumental, enduring tragedy.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: