Consensus Is Sought on Religion in Schools

By Andrew Trotter — March 12, 2007 6 min read
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Diverse groups meet to weigh issues that vex public education

How can the nation’s public schools accommodate students’ religious practices, prepare them for living in a society with a multiplicity of faiths, and avoid related conflicts that disrupt the schools’ educational mission and consume time and money in lawsuits?

Those were the central questions that a conference of some 50 educators, curriculum experts, religious leaders, and legal scholars tried to tackle here last week.

And none too soon, because “there’s a lot of religion going on in public schools,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center of the Washington-based Freedom Forum, one of three groups hosting the conference at Vanderbilt University, which is also affiliated with the First Amendment Center.

Like a few others at the conference, Mr. Haynes has been working for more than two decades on building a consensus on religious issues in the public schools. He has seen students become more assertive about expressing religious sentiments in school, a growth in the number of religions embraced by students, and heightened interest in adding instruction about world religions and the Bible as a cultural text to the curriculum.

Teaching, Not Advocacy

Those trends create more areas of potential conflict—especially when national groups and the news media get involved in local controversies, many here agreed.

“Schools are a battleground for the culture wars,” said Steven Shapiro, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued districts to enforce strong church-state separation in schools.

The ACLU, based in New York City, co-sponsored the conference, and Mr. Shapiro explained that he hoped the discussions would clarify the difference between students’ “expression of religious speech and government endorsement of religion.”

The third co-sponsor was the Council for America’s First Freedom, a Richmond, Va.-based group that promotes the use of dialogue, rather than litigation, to solve conflicts over religion in the public schools.

The council’s president, Robert A. Seiple, told participants that “slash-and-burn litigation” civil-liberties groups has been harmful to the nation.

“Advocacy doesn’t create respect—teaching the controversy does,” referring to the benefits of having students debate religious issues in the classroom, said Mr. Seiple, who served under President Clinton as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.

Oliver “Buzz” Thomas, an ordained Baptist minister who is the executive director of the Niswonger Foundation, an educational and charitable organization in Greeneville, Tenn., said, “People get so polarized by this emotional stuff, they can’t get on with the primary task of the school district.”

Seeking Consensus

Meeting March 5-6, participants representing a range of religious and nonreligious perspectives tried to identify areas of agreement that could help districts and outside groups avoid unnecessary conflict, and especially litigation.

Organizers invited a few observers from the news media, with the stipulation that participants were not to be quoted by name without their approval.

Working groups tackled religion in the public school social studies curricula, including world religions and religious holidays; religion in the science curriculum; Bible courses; and student religious expression.

The talks were a reminder that consensus on general issues—say, that public schools should teach “about religion”—can evaporate as discussions get into specifics or touch on current legal cases.

“The hard cases don’t have right answers,” one lawyer commented.

A working group considering religion in science curricula ran into trouble on how to handle “intelligent design,” which many scientists say is religion masquerading as science.

Some participants said the concept, which holds that humans and other living things show signs of having been created by an intelligent being, deserved mention as an alternative to the theory of evolution, which is overwhelmingly accepted by scientists. But curriculum specialists in science said that intelligent design should be handled in social studies—a position opposed by the social studies experts in the room.

Teaching About Religion

Experts in law, education, and religion at a recent conference on religion in public schools discussed how conflicts over religion could be minimized.

• School districts should develop policies on handling religious issues before disagreements at schools explode into public controversy and lawsuits.

• Educators should develop such policies in consultation with their communities, including local religious leaders. They should try to identify areas of agreement, as well as “safe harbors,” where groups disagree but will not take school districts to court.

• Schools that address religion in the curriculum need better instructional materials, including textbooks and Web sites.

• Teachers need to be better trained about the law on religion in the public schools; of the facts about major religions; and of the recommended pedagogies for teaching about religion.

• Public schools can lessen friction over religion by promoting neutrality, on matters such as the religious holidays that are recognized on the school calendar, and by making reasonable accommodations, such as allowing teachers to wear jewelry featuring religious symbols.

SOURCE: Education Week

One participant, who described herself as a “freethinker,” asked whether inclusion of intelligent design would open the door to astrology in the curriculum.

A group discussing the school calendar pondered the “December dilemma,” in which Christmas dominates the scheduling of the winter school break. One school superintendent described how he found consensus to close schools on the most significant Jewish and Muslim holidays as well. He assembled a committee of educators and community members that designed a calendar, which was approved by the school board, that gave evenhanded treatment to all religions represented in the district’s schools.

A Muslim attendee described ways that school districts have successfully accommodated Islamic religious holidays and used classrooms after the school day for Friday prayers by students. He advised that by consulting with local religious authorities, school administrators would learn where Islam permits flexibility in certain practices—useful information for accommodating students within the confines of school operations.

For example, he said, schools should permit Muslim girls to cover their heads, but the veil often used in Islam is not necessarily a religious requirement.

The group also agreed that teachers’ jewelry that used religious symbols, such as a cross or a Star of David, could be permissible and an opportunity to teach about religious pluralism.

During a general session, an attendee reporting on the discussions of the Bible-as-an-elective working group said that some conservative Christians in the group argued that the public schools cannot teach about the Bible without undermining students’ faith. Those with this perspective also disapproved of schools’ teaching about sacred texts in general, preferring as a less troubling option a general course in world religions.

Bad Advice?

Although most participants seemed to accept that schools could teach about religion in the school curriculum—something that is permissible under court rulings, as are elective courses about the Bible—several people acknowledged that many teachers resist taking up the subject. Either the teachers fear that their lessons will interfere with their students’ religious training at home or church, this argument went, or they have objections to courses that may inadvertently help spread a particular religion.

Better teacher training could address such concerns, but teacher education programs currently pay little attention to religion, some teacher-educators reported.

One attendee said her working group resorted to Greek mythology in describing the challenges of dealing with religious issues in school as “Sisyphean, Herculean, Promethean, or just a Pandora’s box.”

Mr. Haynes of the First Amendment Center said, locally designed policies are the best way for schools to head off conflicts over religious issues.

Unfortunately, he said, “school boards are getting a lot of bad advice” on handling religious issues, and many administrators fear that their attempts to resolve those issues may backfire and inflame latent conflicts.

Another complication, Mr. Haynes said, is that some national groups have a political interest in keeping religious controversies about public schools festering.

“What do you do about groups that don’t want the efforts to find common ground to work and that have an interest in seeing public schools fail?” he said.

The participants agreed to exchange summaries of their deliberations; and the organizers plan to craft a document discussing the conference’s key points, including strategies and recommendations.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Consensus Is Sought on Religion in Schools

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