In Public Schools, Religion by Any Other Name Is Still Religion

charles-c-haynes Commentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

The latest flashpoint in the never-ending conflict over religion in public schools is “Spirituality for Kids,” a program developed by a leader of the Kabbalah Centre International in Los Angeles.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the spirituality lessons are being taught in a number of Los Angeles elementary schools — much to the consternation of some parents and teachers who see the program as a Trojan horse for getting religion through the schoolhouse gate in violation of the First Amendment.

Defenders of Spirituality for Kids, including some L.A. school officials, characterize the class as being about ethics and tools for life, saying it has nothing to do with religion. Creators of the program describe it as “about re-awakening the inherent human spirit through lessons in cause and effect and activities based on universal human truths.”

Critics charge that this is nothing more than a thinly disguised way to promote a form of Kabbalah (broadly defined as a mystical interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures) taught by the Kabbalah Centre.

The Los Angeles Times reports that teachers using the program don’t mention Kabbalah, but they use terms consistent with the teachings of the Kabbalah Centre, telling children that “their actions cause reactions, and to allow their inner ‘light’ to shine by overcoming an internal ‘opponent’ who urges them to make bad decisions.”

Spirituality for Kids isn’t the first attempt to translate a faith-based teaching into a secular program that can be used in public schools. Thirty years ago, an appeals court ruled against the use of transcendental meditation techniques in public schools because the court saw the practice as inseparable from its religious underpinnings. In recent years, Narconon, an anti-drug initiative associated with the Church of Scientology, has stirred considerable controversy when used in California’s public schools.

It is entirely possible that some practices with religious roots — yoga, for example — might pass constitutional muster in public schools if sufficiently de-linked from religious teachings and language. But any program promising to foster “spiritual development” is bound to raise constitutional red flags.

Advocates of Spirituality for Kids argue that “spirituality” can be defined in nonreligious terms. But for First Amendment purposes, that’s a tough sell. A spiritual worldview claiming to offer “universal truths” through finding the “inner light” is likely to be viewed as a religious worldview by the courts.

Moreover, school endorsement of a universal, nonsectarian understanding of spiritual life will be seen by many parents and religious leaders as a direct challenge to their own faith traditions. For some traditions, such as Christianity and Islam, inner life or spiritual growth must be guided by revelations found in scripture. Otherwise, it is seen as dangerous and potentially demonic.

Pop star Madonna, an active proponent of Spirituality for Kids, unwittingly underscores the definitional dilemma when she says: “I like to draw a line between religion and spirituality. For me, the idea of God, or the idea of spirit, has nothing to do with religion. Religion is about separating people, and I don’t think that was ever the Creator’s intention.”

Madonna, of course, has every right to proclaim her belief in a God beyond religion. But her line between religion and spirituality can’t be constitutionally drawn by public school officials. Like other religious worldviews, spirituality (variously defined) may be discussed in the classroom, but only in the context of objective teaching about religions.

Spirituality for Kids does have another option that is legal under current law: It can become a community program offered to students during non-school hours without any involvement or sponsorship by school officials. In 2001, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Good News Club, a Christian-based group that teaches values to kids, to use school facilities after school on the same basis as other community groups.

As for school officials, the spirit they need to consult on this question is the spirit of the First Amendment which guards against religious indoctrination in public education — by whatever name.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].