by Sharon Otterman
The biblical story of Noah’s Ark will be taught, without mention of who told Noah to build it. Challah, the Jewish bread eaten on the Sabbath, will be baked, but no blessings said over it. Some crucifixes will be removed, but others left hanging.
These are the kinds of church-state questions that New York City, religious schools and civil libertarians are answering as Mayor Bill de Blasio expands government-funded prekindergarten. Because of inadequate public school capacity, the de Blasio administration has been urging religious schools and community organizations to consider hosting the added programs ...
The concerns crystallized in a one-page document the city issued in May to religious schools weighing whether to host full-day prekindergarten classes. Rather than state simply, as other municipalities have, that all religious instruction is prohibited, the city’s guidelines say that religious texts may be taught if they are “presented objectively as part of a secular program of instruction.” Learning about one’s culture is permitted, city officials say, but religious instruction is not.
This provision has set off debates in the offices of many schools, particularly Orthodox yeshivas, about just what is permissible. Many students in these schools are from deeply religious homes where the line between the cultural and religious is not only blurred, but absent.
“Can you conduct a mock Passover Seder?” said Jeff Leb, of the Orthodox Union, a national Jewish organization. “Can you discuss the symbolism of the menorah for Hanukkah? Can you have a sukkah at the back of the school? Are these things cultural or religious?”
Asked these questions, city officials said that a mock Seder would not be allowed, because it is a religious ritual, though “social/historical educational elements” of the Seder, which celebrates Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, could be O.K.; that the symbolism of the menorah would “depend on the context”; and that “it would be permissible to teach that there is a custom to sit in a sukkah during a certain time period, but not to perform the ritual itself.”
Religious symbols are not permitted in areas used by city-funded prekindergarten students. A mezuza on a doorway would generally be allowed, but if it had a Jewish star on the outside, it would have to be evaluated in context: If it was small, it would probably be fine, said Maya Wiley, the counsel to the mayor who helped develop the guidelines.
City officials point out that there is nothing new about religious organizations’ housing publicly funded prekindergarten programs; Catholic schools and other faith-based organizations already host half-day versions. But those programs present fewer potential legal problems, because the schools can deliver secular education during one half of the day and religious instruction during the other, when parents, not the city, are paying.
The city is now asking those schools to consider converting their government-subsidized programs to a full day, or six hours 20 minutes, of secular instruction. Richard R. Buery Jr., the deputy mayor in charge of the prekindergarten expansion, said the shift was part of the mayor’s push “to create a single, unified, high-quality system.”
With Mr. de Blasio under pressure to meet his goal of offering 53,000 full-day seats by September — and more than 70,000 by next year — religious groups have some negotiating power. Orthodox Jewish schools, which now educate about 8,000 4-year-olds citywide, have already won some accommodations, such as the right to hold class on Sundays, and are pressing for others, including the ability to host a shorter, five-hour program, which would leave them more time for religious instruction.
Nationally, as of 2009, 31 states, including New York, allowed faith-based organizations to receive public prekindergarten funds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. In Florida, for example, parents may send their 4-year-olds to prekindergarten programs that teach religion. New York strictly prohibits the spending of state funds on sectarian schools and the teaching of religious doctrine. Faith-based preschool providers are permitted only if they ensure that the public money they receive goes to secular programs that serve all children. ...
At the Chabad Early Learning Center of northeast Queens, for example, teachers talk about Hanukkah during the public hours as a story of bravery and character, while also focusing on the scientific properties of water and oil. “They are timeless stories, so it is actually easy to find ways to embed the cultural aspect in learning,” said Rebecca Hillman, the preschool director. Outside those hours, the emphasis is on the holiday’s religious aspects.
Though there is no formal count, about 15 percent of the roughly 1,200 private providers accepted into the prekindergarten program as of July 30 appear to be faith-based schools. That includes at least 33 Catholic schools operated by the Archdiocese of New York. ...
(edited by A Journey through NYC religions)
Read Journey's OpEd for generally agreed upon guidelines about teaching about religion in the public school: Is the public school a religion-free zone?