They would straggle in somewhat sleepy-eyed on Tuesdays at around 7:30 a.m. Some had their assignments done, some didn’t. As they started visiting with me and with each other they would start to perk up and soon we’d be in the midst of some very stimulating conversations. We’d sing, pray, recite memory work(!), discuss what was going on in their lives and ponder a variety of religious topics. During these “Tuesdays With Pastor” sessions, the students’ faith grew, relationships were strengthened and, since these were Seventh and Eighth graders, a little fun was thrown in for good measure.
But now, this long-time fixture of the religious education of the young people in Owatonna has ended. It went by the name “RE” which stood for Religious Education. Each Tuesday morning, starting at about 7:30, for as long as anyone can remember, parents would drop their children off at churches in Owatonna so that they could attend classes of religious education.
When I first came to town 16 years ago, the Owatonna School District and the churches in the community had arranged for RE to last 90 minutes each Tuesday. In 2009, the school district reduced RE time to about 40 minutes. This shortened time frame definitely had an impact on the program, greatly curtailing the opportunity to have higher-level discussions about the abstract topics we often covered.
Then in November of last year, officials from the school district met with the Owatonna Ministerial Association to explain that, with the new Middle School alignment, it would be hard to accommodate RE. Although it was not stated explicitly, a number of us at the November meeting got the distinct impression that, from the school district’s perspective, it was time for the RE program to end. Then in April, the Owatonna Ministerial Association received a letter from the superintendent indicating that our school district’s accommodation of RE in its programming had indeed come to an end.
The roots of the RE program lie in the Minnesota statute that says parents may take their children out of school for up to three hours each week for formal religious education. Since the statute has not changed, parents still have the right to do this, and some churches in Owatonna are exploring ways to continue RE during school hours. The only thing that has really changed is that the Owatonna School District and local churches are no longer working together to establish a scheduled time for students to be absent from school for RE.
The historic Christian element of public schools is well documented. In 1781, Congress approved the purchase of Bibles to be used in public schools. The famous McGuffey Readers, first published in 1836, and used extensively in our nation’s public schools for decades, taught Bible stories and verses along with the ABCs.
The idea of releasing public school students for religious study off school premises in the United States was first discussed in 1905, long before prayer and Bible instruction were purged from our public schools in the name of separation of church and state. By 1922, Released Time programs were active in 23 states, peaking in 1947 with 2 million students enrolled in 2,200 communities. In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld RE programs as legal in all 50 states (Zorach v. Clauson). The three requirements for approved RE classes are: (1) parental permission must be given, (2) instruction must take place off school grounds, and (3) no state resources may be used.
While there are many things pastors can teach students about faith, there is one thing that only parents can teach their children about religious faith; its importance. Through countless decisions made every day in ordering the affairs of the family, parents teach their children just how important – or not important – religious faith is. Even the best pastor cannot teach that lesson to any other than his own kids.
One of my earliest memories is of huddling around the radio with my family to listen to the Minnesota Twins play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1965 World Series. What I learned recently about that Series was that Sandy Koufax, the star pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and also a devout Jew, refused to pitch the opening game of the World Series because it was scheduled to be played on Yom Kippur, an important Jewish holy day.
Koufax went on to pitch in games two, five and seven of that Series, helping the Dodgers defeat the Twins. He earned the title of World Series Most Valuable Player and later was youngest player ever to be elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. I can only imagine the influence Mr. Koufax’s parents had on this superstar’s decision to put his faith first.
It is sad to see the RE program come to an end in Owatonna. But parents who are devoted to teaching their children the importance of religious faith will still find ways to work with their churches to provide their children with a solid grounding in their faith.