Goldberg: Is separation of church and state taken too far?

On Jan. 21, a federal judge ruled an Illinois state law requiring a "moment of silence" in public schools unconstitutional.

The judge, Robert W. Gettleman, stated, "The teacher is required to instruct her pupils, especially in the lower grades, about prayer and its meaning as well as the limitations on their 'reflection…' The plain language of the statute suggests an intent to force the introduction of the concept of prayer into the schools."

In this case, the judge was correct in his ruling but perhaps not nuanced enough to pick out the correct reasoning for it. Introducing the concept of prayer in public schools is not a bad thing; introducing the practice of prayer in schools is where problems arise.

Unfortunately, discussions of the separation of church and state seem fairly repetitive. One group believes there is an impenetrable wall between the two institutions and religion has no place in schools. Another believes that people have the right to bring their religious practices to school and that schools have a responsibility to teach certain religious practices and beliefs.

The former will not entertain the thought of discussing prayer and God in schools, while the latter could not imagine a school system as being complete without prayer and the acknowledgement of God's presence.

Both sides miss the point. In today's global society and heterogeneous United States, it's no longer applicable to have an education free of religious concepts, though we must still strive to keep practices and subjectivity out of the classroom.

The key is to distinguish that unlike practice, religious concepts, simply ideas and beliefs themselves, can be taught empirically: "These people, in general, believe these concepts, though some may vary in their interpretations of them," is simply teaching about a people's belief systems - a part of culture. Conversely, religious practices are the manifestation of these concepts into behaviors: Understanding the idea of prayer is not the same as praying.

So long as teachers are trained in teaching the facts and presenting concepts from an objective standpoint, we can have a certain level of religion in public schools. This would, however, require strict training and monitoring of teachers to ensure that religious concepts are taught without hinting that one may be "right" and the others "wrong."

Teachers though, protected by religious freedom, would not be required to believe in what they were teaching, but only obliged to understand, intellectually, belief systems besides their own.

And freedom of speech? That is a right that has been demonstrated as limited: students can't curse in school, you can't announce that you have a plan to kill the president, you can't say the word "bomb" at an airport and a teacher can't push his or her students in any one particular direction of believing.

In the public school system, students across the nation should be taught the basic concepts of the most widely practiced world religions - not only the Judeo-Christian traditions - within the realm of "social studies." The concepts should be presented as parts of a culture, without subjectivity and the switch from understanding concepts to practices themselves.

We can no longer be afraid of religion in public schools; we can no longer kid ourselves into thinking we are simply a Judeo-Christian nation and we can't allow our teachers to tell our students what they should or should not believe in.

Jesse Goldberg is a freshman English major who wants to learn about religions and discount them all as false.