Trey Kay Published

Us & Them: The Church Lady


For this show, I spoke with journalist Linda K. Wertheimer, the author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion In an Age of Intolerance.  In her book, she has a chapter titled “The Church Lady,” where she recounts her experience of her family moving from western New York to a town in Ohio.  The Wertheimer’s were the only Jews in that community.  Linda and her brother felt confused and ostracized when a lady came to their classroom each week to lead a class that felt less like social studies and more like Sunday school.  Linda recalls all of her classmates singing, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” but she was the only one who didn’t know the words.

Linda’s story gave Us & Them an opportunity to explore America’s history with religious instruction in public education.  Since the early 1960s, public schools have tried to steer clear of organized religion.  Back then, the Supreme Court issued a couple of rulings that said it was unconstitutional to have organized prayer and Bible readings in public schools. Even before then, in 1948, the court said classes like the one the church lady taught were not legal in public schools.

Before the court weighed in, some public schools welcomed preachers and priests and even rabbis into classrooms. They called it Weekday Religious Education (or WRE).  Something that might surprise you is that, back in the day, conservatives and liberals supported religious education in the schools. And here’s another surprise — WRE lived on after the Supreme Court rulings and versions of it are still going on today.

In this episode, we hear from education historian Jonathan Zimmerman, who has written extensively about WRE in his book Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools.  We also hear from Paul Humber, director of C.R. Ministries, a group that organizes “Released Time” Christian education for public school students in Philadelphia.