Do Arabic, Hebrew public schools cross church-state line?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Two new schools, two new conflicts and one old question: Where’s the line between teaching about religion, which is constitutional, and religious indoctrination, which is not?

If the only issue were how to integrate some study of religion into a history or literature course — or even how to create a world-religions elective — the solution would be good teacher training and appropriate academic materials. End of controversy. As long as it is done right, there’s nothing unconstitutional about including religious studies as part of the public school curriculum.

But two public schools opening this fall, the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Fla., have complicated the debate. The first focuses heavily on Arabic language and culture; the second emphasizes Hebrew language.

Of course, dual-language schools are nothing new — New York City alone has some 60 such schools focused on Spanish, Haitian Creole, Chinese and other languages. But critics of Khalil Gibran and Ben Gamla charge that public schools organized around Arabic or Hebrew will inevitably lead to religious indoctrination because both languages are intimately associated with Islam and Judaism, respectively.

Defenders of both schools say Arabic or Hebrew can be taught without imposing religion. Arabic and Hebrew, after all, have secular as well as religious meanings and uses. Neither school plans to engage in any religious practice (unless you count offering kosher meals in the lunchroom).

Objections to the schools won’t keep them from operating — thus far, at least. Ben Gamla, in fact, has already opened its doors. But the local school board recently ordered the school to suspend the teaching of Hebrew because of objections to the proposed curriculum. Two earlier curricula were also rejected because of religious material, underscoring the challenge of teaching Hebrew without the appearance of imposing religion.

Khalil Gibran is scheduled to open Sept. 4 amidst fervent demonstrations of support and opposition. A grassroots organization called “Stop the Madrassa” calls the school “inflammatory” and charges the school will become a Trojan Horse for radical Islam. Among other things, the group complains that city officials haven’t provided information about what will actually be taught.

Some of the opposition to Khalil Gibran appears to be more a post-9/11 backlash against Muslims in America than a reasoned response to the concept of an Arabic-language themed school. Nevertheless, the controversies surrounding both schools suggest that proponents didn’t do their homework. No school focused on Arabic or Hebrew should open without full public disclosure (and opportunity for public comment) of what will be in the curriculum. Given the potential for constitutional violations — and the fact that both schools are “firsts” — more spadework should have been done before school officials approved either experiment.

Now that the schools are operational, it remains to be seen how well they will work. The fact that Ben Gamla still hasn’t gotten school board approval for a Hebrew curriculum is a sign of tough sledding ahead for both schools. Much of the material available to teach either language includes devotional passages, making it difficult to find a constitutionally neutral curriculum.

In theory, at least, it should be possible to organize a public school around teaching Arabic or Hebrew as long as First Amendment guidelines are followed. But in practice these efforts may be hard, if not impossible, to sustain. Let’s start with the fact that local officials may be unable to provide adequate supervision to ensure compliance with the First Amendment — and to avoid litigation.

The flip side of the danger of religious indoctrination is the danger of a religion-free curriculum in both schools. Then we would be treated to the absurd spectacle of students learning Arabic or Hebrew without any understanding of the religions that use these languages. Even though objective teaching about religion is more challenging in a school dedicated to teaching Arabic or Hebrew, a good education in either language demands that it be done.

The rush to open these schools without adequate vetting has created a public-relations nightmare in both communities. But that shouldn’t mean a rush to judgment about whether they violate the First Amendment. Let’s give them a chance — and keep a close watch.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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