MORAGA — A discussion about faith, politics and public policy that veers between the secular left and the religious right shortchanges the nation, say the architects of a new St. Mary's College research center that will explore issues involving religious pluralism.

"Sometimes that has serious results and serious problems," said Barbara McGraw, a professor of social ethics, law and public life and the director of the Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism.

The center plans to make policy recommendations for the government and agencies, analyze issues involving faith in the public square and develop student interfaith programs.

It plans to hold conferences and forums featuring multiple religious perspectives.

Its first undertaking is the Prison Religion Project, which center members hope will craft a model policy to accommodate diverse faiths in the penal system.

"If you don't have knowledge about specific religions in prisons, you are not going to be able to come up with a neutral, fair and unbiased prison religion policy," McGraw said. A federal statute in 2000 strengthened religious freedom for inmates. Nationally, penal institutions encompass a growing span of inmate faith groups, including Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Native Americans and Wiccans.

Problems tend to be dealt with in a piecemeal fashion, she said.


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"The conversation is rarely opened up in the range of our religiously pluralistic society — both in accommodating faiths and understanding that faiths have something to share," she said. "The big voices are the secular left and the religious right, but what do Catholics, Muslims, Jews have to say about that?"

Similarly, issues of how Americans use the public square demand a diversity of views, she said.

"If we show a menorah and a creche, for some people, that implies diversity," she said. "What does everyone else say about that? It's a conversation that can benefit from a wider range of voices."

The center will also focus on K-12 educational issues involving religion and the religious and cultural implications of economic globalization.

The center will progress with the help of faculty from St. Mary's and stipends from other institutions once funding materializes. Its current affiliate is Richard Keady, professor of comparative religious studies at San Jose State University.

The center had its genesis in a Christian Brothers retreat, where McGraw was inspired by Lasallian educator Brother Gerard.

"Brother Gerard teaches that the Lasallian tradition's mission is to serve the inherent equal dignity of every person — which is not merely to teach tolerance," McGraw said, "but to awaken the eyes of the heart, giving rise to compassion that transcends class, economic status, race, nationality, gender, and religious differences, and leads to a dedication to social justice.

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Information about the St. Mary's College Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism is at www.engagedpluralism.org.