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Truce Sought In School Wars Over Religion

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Arlington, Va.

Groups that often battle fiercely over the proper place of religion in public education pledged last week to soften the tone of their rhetoric and to demonstrate respect for one another's views.

The 18 organizations range from the Christian Coalition and the National Association of Evangelicals to the National Education Association and People for the American Way.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley endorsed the groups' statement of principles on "religious liberty, public education, and democracy" during a news conference here last week at the headquarters of the Freedom Forum, a foundation that helped draw up the statement through its First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

"Public education must be sensitive to, and open to, the concerns of religious-minded parents who sometimes feel that they are less than welcome," Mr. Riley said. "But at the same time, religious-minded Americans must be willing to build bridges, to respect the freedom of conscience of other Americans, and to not see public education as their enemy."

'Culture Wars'

The six principles call for greater respect for religion in public education and a more civil tone in public debate over issues on which the organizations often are divided, such as school prayer, sex education, textbook selection, and allowing student religious groups to meet at public schools. (See related story.)

Charles Haynes, a visiting scholar at the First Amendment Center and one of the primary organizers behind the statement, said the effort started because "public schools are too often the battleground in what are called the 'culture wars.'"

"Today we offer a divided nation a shared vision of public schools as places where religion and religious diversity are treated with fairness," he said.

(See education and conservative religious groups and individuals.

For example, Mr. Riley has reached out to include traditionally conservative religious organizations in his family-involvement initiative.

And last year, the leaders of several education and religious groups began meeting quietly in an effort to find common ground on education issues. (See related story

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