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Asking the Clergy: What if school lessons conflict with religious beliefs?

Dr. Isma H. Chaudhry, Rabbi Mendy Goldberg and

Dr. Isma H. Chaudhry, Rabbi Mendy Goldberg and the Rev. Kevin O'Hara. Photo Credit: Islamic Center of Long Island (Chaudhry); Richard Lewin (Goldberg); Kevin O'Hara

With a new school year about to begin, this week’s clergy discuss how to resolve conflicts between religious tenets and public education.

Isma H. Chaudhry

Chairwoman, board of trustees, Islamic Center of Long Island, Westbury  

We are living in a society where, regretfully, people are often self-centered. They seem only to be aware of their rights, and not of obligations to keep social harmony intact in our diverse neighborhoods.

In the Muslim tradition, upholding the values and teachings of the tenets of Islam is essential. Yet the holy scripture Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad instruct the importance of tolerance and respect to ensure peace and harmony in the community. The Quran says that although the world was created with many people and tribes, we should “Stay steadfast in religion and make no divisions therein” (Chapter 41:13).

To this end, it is vital, when school lessons conflict with our beliefs, for parents to keep the lines of communication open, both with children and school officials. We have to equip our kids with the intellectual depth and compassion to respect other points of view — be they academic or cultural — without compromising religious integrity or cultural identity. We have to make the school aware of the conflict. The responsibility of raising a diverse, inclusive society of individuals is on the parents, schools and houses of worship. All have to ensure that there is respect for diversity in religious beliefs and cultures. Respect for diversity does not mean we have to make a religious or cultural compromise.

Rabbi Mendy Goldberg

Lubavitch of the East End, Coram  

Schools need to be a safe place for all children at all times. That’s why 200 years ago, we Americans decided that we don’t want a state religion. We don’t want the government dispensing moral guidance to our children. That’s why we have the Establishment Clause in our Constitution, mandating the separation of church and state.

At the same time, students need the protection of those preaching against any religion in any condescending way. We as parents send our children to school to learn and become better people, productive in the world at large. No child should feel that their heritage is in jeopardy by any authority in the school.

Children may begin their day with a moment of silence — only instructed by the teacher to use this time for personal reflection. Their parents can be the ones to tell them what to think about. This could bring about a phenomenal unintended consequence: a dialogue between children and parents about something more of substance. For those parents who choose to do so, this will be an opportunity to talk with their children about a creator who bestows life and to whom we are accountable. And for all parents, it will be a means of connecting their children’s academic studies to the moral values they wish to pass on to them. In this way, space can be made in the consciousness of our children for a higher purpose for their learning. Worst-case scenario is they will daydream.

The best-case scenario is our next generation will start their day with a focus on something higher. All of their subjects of study, and indeed their entire life, will be given context and meaning.

The Rev. Kevin O’Hara

Pastor, Lutheran Church of Our Savior, Patchogue  

Months ago, one family wrote a passionate letter about a new meditation practice in the local school. The family felt strongly that this practice went against their religious beliefs and asked for support to end it. The good news is that whenever we feel that a school impedes on our personal religious beliefs, many schools allow families to opt out of the practice. This could include immunizations, sex and physical education and meditation.

The power of living in America is based on choice to engage or not, to opt in or out, and schools often provide alternatives so that students are not left completely abandoned (i.e., study hall).

I would suggest that sometimes what seems against one’s beliefs may actually add a new level of understanding to faith when applied. I’m not suggesting that anything goes, but researching the practice’s rationale could help enlighten why the school feels strongly about teaching this particular lesson; researching connections to your faith would be an added bonus.

Take meditation: Schools have been incorporating meditation to keep students calm and safe; the religious add-on is that Christianity and other faiths have incorporated meditation (see mystics) for 2,000 years to get closer to God. Schools and people of faith are both doing their best in these demanding times — and sometimes these two worlds mesh and sometimes they conflict. When we use knowledgeable individual choice to guide, we can deepen our faith understanding while providing the best for our children.

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