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Universal Faith

Author: Noah Feldman
August 26, 2007
The New York Times Magazine


Another school year, another round of controversy about religion in public education. This fall, two new yet already divisive publicly financed schools are set to open: the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn and the Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Fla. Both describe themselves as nonsectarian institutions that emphasize a particular language — Arabic and Hebrew, respectively — and both have been criticized on the assumption that they will be organized around the distinctive cultures (and thus religions) associated with those languages. Meanwhile, at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, a small firestorm has erupted over plans to install foot baths in school washrooms to help Muslim students perform the ablutions required for daily prayer.

In each of these cases, education officials seem to be making an effort to accommodate a religious community. And in each case, this perfectly understandable impulse has led to criticism that the concession oversteps the separation between church and state. The uproar over Khalil Gibran has reached a fever pitch, and the founding principal has already resigned.

Americans have been debating the place of God in schools almost uninterruptedly since public education got its start in the country nearly two centuries ago. As the United States becomes more religiously diverse, its collective uncertainty on this issue becomes all the more salient. The Supreme Court, with its confused and confusing doctrine on the establishment clause, has not provided the guidance to resolve these problems.

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