To the Editor:

I was pained to learn that a Federal lawsuit was filed against the School District of the Chathams (SDOC), the Board of Education, et. al. alleging constitutional rights being violated over the issue of the SDOC “proselytizing” students into the Islamic Faith. This was allegedly done as part of a Geography class delving into comparative religions. Besides a needless legal expense becoming an extra added tax burden for already over-burdened taxpayers, I wish to address the larger issue.

In 1965, in my 6th grade Geography class at St. Henry’s Roman Catholic School in Bayonne, NJ, part of the curriculum was comparative religions. The intent was to instruct us as to the increasingly diverse nature of our society and to learn the basic tenets of different faiths, lest we insult someone out of ignorance. I learned that you never invite devout Jews to dinner on a Friday night. I learned that if you invite observant Jews for dinner, meals must be Kosher and you never offer roast pork. I learned that if I invited my one Hindu classmate and her family to dinner, we would not be serving a beefsteak dinner.  These were important lessons that allowed me to know that there were others different than me. It taught me to respect them and to view the differences as differences that made us stronger, not weaker. It made me feel better about myself.

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In 1967, in the 8th grade at St. Henry’s, comparative religions were again examined in historical context during History class. We learned of the Moslems coming as far north as Spain. (Incidentally, back then, Moslems were interchangeably referred to Moors). We learned about the Crusades and the reason for their taking place. We learned of the diaspora of the Jews. We learned that residents of the nation of India considered cows as sacred animals. We learned of the Protestant Reformation, why it happened, the effect it had on the world, etc. 

In 1970, at Bayonne High School in Bayonne, NJ, we had a “Comparative Religions” course. It examined Moslems, Jews, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists and some other minor religions which I cannot recall. We learned to be sensitive, respectful citizens who followed the Hippocratic Oath of “do no harm.”  I followed up this education by proactively taking a “Comparative Religions” course as an elective at Jersey City State College when I was a junior there in 1973.

In each class, we learned of the increasing diversity of nationalities and religions in our society. We learned why the Irish came to the U.S. We learned of the African-American migration to northern cities.  We learned why many Puerto Ricans fled the island in the 1940’s and 1950’s and largely settled in Florida and in New York/New Jersey. Some nationalities were well accepted; others not. As a Puerto Rican, I was not one to experience acceptance until I arrived at college. I was called various ethnic slurs and was relentlessly bullied and beaten up; so much so that I made a suicide attempt at the age of 17.

Why do I bring all this up? Because words matter and we live in an increasingly diverse world. Our rich diversity consists of dozens of nationalities, races and creeds. That phenomenon is not going away; it will only increase and, as a DIRECT result, will make us a stronger and more vibrant nation.

This lawsuit seeks to cast a gulf of division among us. We cannot allow that to happen. Does the plaintiff have every right to file a lawsuit? Of course. But, we do not have to allow it to affect what we know we must do and that is “Love thy brother and sister as you would love yourself.”  Let’s celebrate our diversity, not bury it. Let’s come together as one and make our nation stronger. I encourage all to perform a random act of kindness for someone you do not know and someone who is different from you. You may be surprised by the receptivity of your kindness. As my Dad with only a third-grade education and a Mom with no education drilled into me: “Don’t think you’re better than anyone else, we all bleed red.” Words to live by.

Len Resto

Council President

Center Street

Borough of Chatham