Religion in Public Schools?
Daniel Schwieterman – All Saints Church (Houston, TX)
The Diocese of Galveston/Houston has over 400,000 Catholic children between the ages of five and eighteen. About 25% of these children are in catechesis. Catechesis to only 25% of the Catholic children is unacceptable. I’d like to share with you how each of us could double or triple the number of students we serve each year.
Most people consider public schools “no fly” zones for teaching the faith to our children. However, in 2001 the US Supreme Court in the case of Milford versus Good News Bible Club (June 2001), declared religious oriented programs by religious groups before or after school are legal. Briefly these decisions say that religious groups and their programs have equal footing with before and after school programs such as boy and girl scouts, YMCA programs (presently there are 250 YMCA programs on public school campuses), dance and fine arts, etc. Under this model of community participation, Catholic catechesis at public schools is permitted.
Catechesis at public schools began for the first time in Houston over 20 years ago. Less than 25% were attending. The decision was made if “they” won’t come to the church, then we will bring the church to them! These efforts resulted in significant increase in the active participation of Catholic families in catechesis, the parish, and also Sunday worship. In the first parish, Christ the King, CCE enrollment grew from 400 to 1,500 participants in ten years. Presently at All Saints we tripled the number of students in CCE in the first five years of offering catechesis at the public schools.
There are challenges when the public schools and churches enter catechesis at the public schools. Entry attempts will find some public school officials and parish leaders very open and eager and others very reluctant and unwilling to cooperate. Initially, entering into the public schools with catechesis can be scary, even overwhelming. Only a few Houston parishes have tried and less persevered for several years. Since this public school catechesis is a rather “different” approach, it takes some time and effort to get it up running. If the experienced leaders move on whether at the parish or public schools, the process often has to begin again.
Seven Effective Steps to Catechesis in the Public School
- Positive Approach: Public Schools and the churches form one community/village. All gain when working together. Public school officials are generally eager to involve other members of the local community to serve their students and families. There are many enrichment activities before and after school for which the schools need resources and volunteer help. Many public schools already have community groups involved at their schools. Catholic Churches can also become part of the before or after-school enrichment programs with our own focus area of Catholic faith formation.
- Constitutional Issues: to utilize this opportunity, Church leaders and the school officials need to be aware that such church activities in the public schools do not violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The local parish will need to take the initiative with the school principals and public school boards. Google Bible Club vs. Milford Central for the Supreme Court interpretation for Church/State approval of public school on campus religious activity.
- Initiating Programs with the schools – information and allies:
- Gather the necessary data on the targeted school. Study the student statistics of your parish’s public schools.
- Parents of the students in the public school where the program are offered are excellent advocates to help get clubs and catechetical activities initiated. Often one will find “Bible Groups” formed by evangelical on the campus who use the classroom of a “sympathetic” teacher. The teacher herself could nurture it or parents of the interested students lead it.
- Catholic teachers and aides in the schools. Catholic teachers and aides may also initiate or “sponsor” such “clubs/activities” as long as they do not “force” the children to participate and they do it “after or before” school hours. They can help as volunteers after they sign out at the close of the official school day.
- The director of religious education must help the Catholic parents, teachers, and aides organize and direct the programs. The strong support of the pastor and parish are necessary to the volunteers and DRE to help energize and motivate all to take this “evangelizing catechesis” into the public schools. These staff leaders need to help these groups connect back into the parish programs for sacraments and worship.
- Getting Started: Usually it takes a year of building relationships with the public school’s principal and staff. After approval, the arrangements are made with the school to send home sign up and permission forms which the parents return to the school or to the parish. The principal and parish leader then arranges rooms and completes other administrative details. The catechetical year begins with the students, parents, volunteers, and parish staff meeting in the school cafeteria for an orientation, where possible. At this orientation the program is explained, expectations clarified, volunteer teachers are introduced, and classrooms assigned.
- Parish Resources (staff, volunteers, and costs): Various catechetical levels are offered at the public schools but sacramental preparation is at the church following a year of catechesis. This sacramental preparation at the church is to foster parish identification and Sunday worship.
- CCE Volunteers are from the families who have children in the programs or other adults from the parish. School parents, through the PTO model, are accustomed to volunteering in their children’s activities. Public school teachers and aides may also volunteer for these after school programs after they have clocked out from their school day (about 15 minutes after dismissal of the students). The parish, as with all its programs whether on its campus or away, has full responsibility for the children who participate. It is very important that a parish staff member (DRE/CRE) have direct oversight of these parish/public school programs.
- Catechesis as Evangelization invites people into the church. From 20 years of experience with catechesis at the public schools, almost all the children come from families with little to no regular participation in parish life. When these children are catechized, the parents often follow with parish involvement. Such can be the experience of any parish that takes the church to its people – they then come to the church. Public schools can be the boats and nets that bring in “all those” that Jesus commanded us “to teach and make disciples….” (Matthew 28:16-20). Be careful, the parish boat may overflow with the catch to the point that one fears it will sink. What a happy fear!
However, we must first go out to evangelize in this modern age if we want to catch our “fish”. The new title of our Houston formation office is Evangelization and Catechesis which expresses this clearly. It echoes the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel’s closing line – “Go out to (evangelize) all and make them disciples (students)” – or Evangelize All and Catechize them…. (Mt. 28:16-20.
Further reading and notes:
- Bryan T. Froehle and Mary L. Gautier, Catholicism USA, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2000
- William D’Antonio, James D. Davidson, Dean Hoge. Mary Gautier, Amercian Catholics Today: New Realitis of their Faith and their Church/ 2000
- Robert Rivers, Maintenance to Mission, Paulist Press, 2005, New York/Mahwah, NJ
- Pew Reports, reports on religious studies and the Hispanic challenge in the USA Pulpit & Pew Research Project – archived site Pulpit and Pew, pulpitandpew.org.
- The Rise of Christianity – How the Obscure Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force by Rodney Stark
- Milford vs. Bible Club for a direct reading of this ruling: https://laws.findlaw.com/us/000/99-2036.html