The separation of church and state in America does not allow for prayer in public schools, but it does not prevent students from learning about the pivotal role religion has played in history.

Since 1997, National Board-certified teacher Jim D'Acosta has taken his Fairfield Warde High School history students on a voluntary Religion and Social Action Field Trip. Each spring the students visit a synagogue, Catholic church, Protestant church and a mosque in an attempt to gain a better understandikng of the motivation of religious groups, which D'Acosta said provided the core leadership of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.

"Religion is at the center of western civilization. I knew that from having been a religious studies major in college and from a master's degree in history. You can't teach a course like western civilization without acknowledging the powerful and central role that religion has played," said D'Acosta, who had 29 students sign up for this year's trip Tuesday.

"I'm Catholic so I don't know about other religions ... I thought it was interesting. I had only been to a Catholic church," said Sarah Anzellotti, a 17-year-old Warde junior. "I learned how similar the religions were. They all believe in one God and they have the same beliefs pretty much," Anzellotti said.

Even after his teaching schedule no longer included Highlights of Western Civilization, D'Acosta continued the annual house-of-worship field trips because he saw their value to the students. "Students today are American history students and I timed the trip for May in order to correspond with our unit on the 1960s civil-rights movement," he said.

"The leaders and a lot of the people who worked in civil rights in the '60s and '70s and risked their lives, some of whom were beat up, some jailed, some killed, many of them did it for religious reasons, whether they were Christians, Jews or Muslims in this country," D'Acosta said.

One of the questions he asked each religious leader to address was to explain why their particular religion encourages believers to engage in social action. "Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister. Malcolm X was an Imam. There were rabbis marching with Martin Luther King Jr. (Religion) was at the core of the reason why many people got involved in civil rights," he said.

Over the years, D'Acosta said the local religious leaders have been both accommodating and enthusiastic to be included in educational programs because religion is so often left out. It has become particularly important to leaders of Islam since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in which the terrorists were said to have recited verses from the Koran as they flew planes into buildings in New York and Washington, D.C.

In the first few years of the trips, terrorism wasn't much of a topic, D'Acosta said. But post-9/11 it moved right to the forefront of students' interest. "Islam, unfortunately, has been on the defensive since 2001. Before 2001, my students saw Islam as being exotic and odd and interesting, but not threatening. Since 2001, definitely threatening," he said.

D'Acosta said religious leaders at the Masjid An-Noor, the mosque in Bridgeport, have been especially grateful to participate and welcoming to the students because the field trips give them an opportunity to present their religion themselves rather than to be represented by the dominant images in the media, which are negative, he said.

"I'm Muslim. When people think of Muslims the first thing that comes to mind is terrorists ... You should not let one person define an entire faith," said Abdel Abunar, 16, a junior. Abdel admitted he would feel shy about praying in front of fellow students in his house of worship, Masjid An-Noor, "but it's also a good thing at the same time because they get to learn what Islam really is.

"Religions are united and should have no qualms with each other," Abunar said.

At Masjid An-Noor, Dr. Karim Adeeb told the students he does not believe there are three different major religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam. "I believe there is one religion with three traditions. God doesn't contradict himself," Adeeb said.

"The message is the same, the essence of the message is the same," he said before elaborating on some of the differences and similarities. For example, he said, Christians believe humans are made in the image and likeness of God whereas in Islam God has no image.

As gay marriage has become a political issue that topic has also generated more questions from the students, D'Acosta said.

At Greenfield Hill Congregational Church, the co-pastors, the Revs. David Rowe and Alida Ward, representing Protestant Christianity, said their church allows people to follow their own conscience on the issue.

Ward said the United Church of Christ allows ministers the freedom to officiate at gay marriages and she said she has married to gay couples, and her husband, Rev. Rowe, has officiated at one gay marriage.

"They (students) may not have confronted someone like Rev. Ward and Rev. Rowe. Those ministers at Greenfield Hill Congregational Church may be the first religious leaders that they've ever heard condone gay marriage," he said.

Ward also addressed the issue of women in roles of religious leadership.

On the field trip students also learned about Judaism from Rabbi Dan Satlow, who represented Conservative Judaism at Congregation Beth El, and they visited St. Pius X Church, where the Rev. Shawn Cutler and Pastoral Assistant Kathleen Donnelly discussed Catholicism.