Weekly Religious Education in the Public Schools

This column ran in 2004 in the Daily News Leader, Staunton, Va., but I own the right to this and any of my columns. I still get phone calls and email messages about this column. After it was published, I was threatened, called every name under the sun, and lost some “friends.” One of the most revealing things that happened was all of the supportive emails and calls I received—but almost all of them said they would not go public with their stand. I’m running it here because the issue has cropped up again in the Daily News Leader and I’ve gotten several requests to see it.

Thoroughly Modern Mollie

We just registered Emma to attend kindergarten next fall. We have thought about private schools, but decided we would try the public school and if it does not work out, we know know we have a few options. I have always believed that education is what you make it and that what happens at home is just as important as what happens at school. But I do fret about possible bad influences, as well as the Standards of Learning and the Weekly Religious Education Program.

I am not sure I know enough about the SOLs to give an educated opinion about them; but I do know that I will learn a great deal about them over the next year. Many teachers I know don’t like the SOLS, and from what I understand, it’s because they take the creativity and individuality out of teaching. One teacher I know said,’You have to teach to the standards, not to the child.”

That is worrisome.

Given all the pressure on Virginia’s teachers now, I wonder what they really think of the Weekly Religious Education program in Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County Schools. (Just in case you don’t know about this, our public school students are taken off campus once a week and given a dose of Christianity.) Constitutional issues aside, it seems to me like an enormous waste of time.

For that hour or so a week, our kids could be learning something educational, not getting religion, which after all should be a family matter.

A number of Waynesboro parents that I know are very concerned about the WRE.

Many of our kids are not in school yet, but they will be soon. I have tried, with the help of Ed Piper, the minister of my church (the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro) to organize a community forum in which all of the community’s concern about the WRE could be aired. We have invited the president of the WRE to attend such a gathering. I tried to get her to agree to a date, place, and time to no avail. So, we will probably have one without them, regrettably.

Religion in the public schools is a hot issue to be sure – one that the WRE slides out of by claiming that it is elective. That logic doesn’t hold true for several reasons. I have heard troubling stories from parents detailing things like the pressure their children (second-third, and fourth graders) feel about attending WRE. That pressure comes from both peers and teachers.

I have also heard that kids come home in tears saying they are going to “go to hell” if they don’t attend these classes. (Is this something we want little ones to worry about?)

Another source I have, who worked in the schools, says that the WRE is a joke; the children run wild during that time and nobody is learning a thing.


Another story I heard made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A woman I know called the school to ask about WRE. She asked the teacher, “Is it religious education or is it Christian education?”

“I don’t understand the question,” the teacher responded.

Is this the person who will be EDUCATING our children?

It is a dangerous path in today’s world to think there is only one way to believe, to have a connection with Spirit, and Only One way for salvation.

And it is more dangerous to inculcate our children into that way of thinking. This has nothing to do with political correctness, but everything to do with reality. Our world is getting smaller, our children’s worlds will be even smaller, and we need to help them open their hearts to others belief systems – not to change the way they or we believe, necessarily, but to respect others feelings, religions and cultures. It will be imperative to them as they make their way through our blessedly diverse world.

I understand that there is a concern that some of these children may not be getting religion at home. I say exposure or nonexposure to religion is up to parents. Period. If a child is having problems with morality or character or whatever, we have highly qualified guidance counselors who can step in.

I also say that this is certainly a school (and therefore Constitutional) issue. Our children are taken FROM THE SCHOOL. And , the thing that bothers me more than anything is that we are asking our kids to make a public choice-with all of the stigma that is associated with it.

Children should not have to choose a religious preference in front of school mates. Let’s not use religion as a way of dividing our children.

13 thoughts on “Weekly Religious Education in the Public Schools

  1. Laura R says:

    Thank you for writing this in 2004 and sharing it again now. I’m one of those who has fully supported this stand privately, yet been very reluctant to take a public stand. Part of it is my public job, but perhaps a bigger part is the last sentence in your second-to-last paragraph: it’s very hard to take a public stand on this without making my kids bear at least as big a burden as me.

    • Mollie Cox Bryan says:

      Thanks for commenting Laura. You are right about the children. That’s precisely the reason I stopped in my tracks years ago. But I have to say, in defense of WAYNESBORO schools, WRE has not been an issue for my kids at all. They don’t go to WRE and they could care less what anybody thinks of it. But when your children are just entering the school system, you have no idea how it’s going to work out.

  2. Cathy VanPatten says:

    Well said, Mollie. I attended these classes when I went to Jackon-Wilson Elementary School way back in the day–when a WRE teacher came to the classroom and the few students who did not attend (Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and every once in a while, a Jewish child–no one would own up to being an atheist or agnostic back then) had to leave the room for what? The cafeteria for a study hall? The library?

    What I remember most vividly from those classes was that we had to color in the panes of a stained glass window each week–we could use any color of our choosing if we attended church the previous Sunday, but if we didn’t, we had to color the pane BLACK. And God would know if we lied. Nice. I also recall that neither of the teachers I had for WRE over the years could carry a tune in a bucket–so much so that it made it very hard for kids just developing social filters to restrain themselves from snickering…

    Really, it was a useless class. The teachers were, I’m sure, kind and sincere, but everyone considered it a break in the “real” work of the day.

    I would be all for a comparative religions class for all students–one that didn’t give preference to any one religion. Then we might start to see some real strides in eliminating the religious bigotry that currently bedevils our nation.

    • Mollie Cox Bryan says:

      Well said, Cathy. I am also for real religious education. A comparative religious education class would be great.
      That’s a bizarre story about the stained glass windows…Oye.

  3. Jen on the Edge says:

    If I felt confident that these classes would offer a fair and balanced look at all world religions, then I would be fine with sending my children. If not, then I would not only not send them to WRE, I would also withdraw them from the public school system and educate them elsewhere.

    • Mollie Cox Bryan says:

      Oh yeah, Jen, there’s nothing fair and balanced about it. You can chose NOT to send your child and when they get left behind at my school, it works out well because they get enrichment. But that’s not the case in some of the other schools.
      Thanks for commenting.

  4. MARY RIFFE says:

    Division of Church and State..I agree..We are Orthodox Christians and WHAT they are teaching is Minimal and Confusing to many children. My daughter went just to get out of school.PERIOD.I have made sure that my daughter and Son understood that the info they were receiving was COMPLETELY white washed and and that they need to see the differences in the way religion is taught and how watered down the truth really is. Our faith is strong and YES it is because I taught them at HOME,,,And They learned at our Church…Wisdom

    • Mollie Cox Bryan says:

      Thanks, Mary, for commenting. I know a lot of Christians who feel the same way you do. I have friends who go to church at least twice a week and they don’t want their kids to go to WRE.

  5. Lyndsey Toddler Games says:

    When we come home, they will rush to us and kiss us and the whole bit, simply because we are the parents and bring home the bread. Problems and objectives identified: To ensure success, I needed to identify some of the major problems my boys were presenting me.

  6. Wire Shelving says:

    the public schools on our district can really give some good education to young kids. they have high standards `*:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *