Guide Seeks a 'Proper Role' for Religion in Schools
A new resource guide aims to help public schools become less of a cultural battleground by finding "a proper constitutional and educational role" for religion.
That could be quite a challenge during a time of bitter clashes over student prayers and religious-based curriculum challenges. But the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville hopes the 166-page handbook can help communities reach consensus on the role of religion in public education.
"As American citizens, we can and must develop out of our differences a shared understanding of the role of religion and values in public schools," writes Charles C. Haynes, a visiting scholar at the First Amendment Center who edited the manual, "Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education."
The guide offers legal and practical advice for navigating tricky issues such as religious holidays, the content of holiday programs, student religious expression, and curriculum challenges.
For example, public schools need not remove all religious music from Christmas concerts, it suggests, but neither should they sponsor concerts featuring predominantly religious selections.
The guide also calls for more teaching about religion.
Organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Evangelicals endorsed the guide. It encourages parents and educators to seek common ground on religious disputes.
Since religious consensus is not possible in the United States, "civic consensus" over the proper interpretation of the U.S. Constitution's religion clauses is vital, the book says.
The guide says school administrators should reach out to critics of school policies, including religious conservatives. Even if their views do not prevail in a particular debate, they may be more willing to support public education if they have been included in the process, the book says.
Oliver Thomas, a Baptist minister and constitutional scholar who was the legal editor of the guide, said it was not designed to give a definitive answer for every religious dispute in schools.
"But it sets forth a process that school districts can implement to settle questions in their own backyard," he said.
U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley praised the guide in a prepared statement, saying, "Public schools should not be hostile to religion."
They also must be sensitive to religious minorities, whose convictions are sometimes "ignored or even looked down upon," Mr. Riley said.
Prayer Still Contentious
Representatives of two conservative religious organizations, the n.a.e. and the Christian Legal Society, also endorsed the guide at a news conference last week at the Arlington, Va., offices of the Freedom Forum, a foundation devoted to First Amendment issues.
"This book sheds some light where there is mostly heat and smoke," said Steven McFarland, the director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom. However, its advice about graduation prayer shows that consensus likely will remain elusive on the most contentious church-state issues.
The guide says the idea of student-initiated, student-led graduation prayers raises significant questions:
"First, it is clear that constitutional rights are not subject to vote. Therefore, it is unlikely that students can vote to suspend the no establishment of religion clause and have organized prayer at a school-sponsored event."
It suggests that schools encourage private sponsorship of voluntary baccalaureate services separate from graduation ceremonies.
The guide's advice on prayer contradicts many religious conservatives who argue that students' rights to free speech and free exercise of religion should allow them to decide whether to include prayers at graduation.
Mr. McFarland said the prayer section is "one weak area of the book. It is not quite as fair as it could be to student-initiated prayer."
A limited number of free copies of the guide are available from the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave., South, Nashville, Tenn. 37212; (615) 321-9588.