BALTIMORE, JUNE 19 -- Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders issued a joint statement today calling for public schools to begin specific instruction in moral values.
Officials from the National Council of Catholic Bishops and the Synagogue Council of America, the umbrella organization for the three major Jewish traditions, recommended that states introduce material on civic and personal values beginning in kindergarten.
They suggested that foundations underwrite such programs.
They said they intend to encourage congregations to press for moral instruction and that they believe an ecumenical commission should be established to keep track of court cases and legislation affecting values education.
Catholic-Jewish relations have been strained in recent years but religious leaders said today they are united around a common concern.
Values "like honesty, compassion, integrity, tolerance, loyalty and belief in human worth and dignity are embedded in our respective religious traditions and in the civic fabric of our society," their statement said.
"But in recent years, there has been a growing reluctance to teach values in our public educational system out of a fear that children might be indoctrinated with a specific religious belief."
The religious leaders' call comes at a time of increased interest by educators and others in education as one way to stem youthful drug addiction, pregnancy and violence.
D.C. schools, for example, just finished their first school year of a "values-infused curriculum" geared at teaching values from existing textbooks.
The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a professional teachers' group based in Alexandria, offers schools a booklet on how to teach moral values and requests for it have been overwhelming, according to a spokesman.
Individual efforts such as these are important, said the Rev. William C. Newman, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and coauthor of today's report. But they're not enough.
"We want to blanket the country with this," he said.
Many religious leaders, parents, business and government leaders have stood aside while school systems across the country established "value-free" education, said Rabbi Joel Zaiman, president of the Synagogue Council and the report's other author.
"We've been on the sideline like everyone else," he said, referring to members of the clergy. "We're all products of the culture and we now want to buck it."
Zaiman said about 95 percent of Jewish youths, and 80 percent of Catholic youngsters, attend public school.
The clergymen acknowledged that some groups, particularly evangelical Christians, have been advocating a return to "family values" in the schools for years. But their particular issues are often divisive, or not shared by most Americans, and they've made it difficult to teach more commonly held beliefs, said Eugene Fisher, executive secretary for Catholic-Jewish relations of the bishops' conference in Washington.
Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler said religious leaders also intend to build support for existing moral education programs that often must fight for attention and time.
Baltimore, for example, has a nationally known program that includes 20-minute instruction twice a week, according to Auxiliary Bishop Newman. Sometimes, however, when classes fall behind in math or English, discussions about morals disappear, Newman said.
Keeler said today's statement, three years in the making, was the first time a joint report has been issued by the two religious bodies addressing a problem of widespread public concern.