.sqs-featured-posts-gallery .title-desc-wrapper .view-post

Religion in U.S. Public Education

By Paul Chaffee

The Quest for ‘Civil Public Schools’

Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy: A Statement of Principles

In the spirit of the First Amendment, we1 propose the following principles as civic ground rules for addressing conflicts in public education:

I. Religious Liberty for All

Religious liberty is an inalienable right of every person.

As Americans, we all share the responsibility to guard that right for every citizen. The

Constitution of the United States with its Bill of Rights provides a civic framework of

rights and responsibilities that enables Americans to work together for the common

good in public education.

II. The Meaning of Citizenship

Citizenship in a diverse society means living with our deepest differences and committing ourselves to work for public policies that are in the best interest of all individuals, families, communities and our nation.

The framers of our Constitution referred to this concept of moral responsibility as civic virtue.

III. Public Schools Belong to All Citizens

Public schools must model the democratic process and constitutional principles in the development of policies and curricula.

Policy decisions by officials or governing bodies should be made only after appropriate involvement of those affected by the decision and with due consideration for the rights of those holding dissenting views.

IV. Religious Liberty and Public Schools

Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.

Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.

V. The Relationship between Parents and Schools

Parents are recognized as having the primary responsibility for the upbringing of their children, including education.

Parents who send their children to public schools delegate to public school educators some of the responsibility for their children’s education. In so doing, parents acknowledge the crucial role of educators without abdicating their parental duty. Parents may also choose not to send their children to public schools and have their children educated at home or in private schools. However, private citizens, including business leaders and others, also have the right to expect public education to give students tools for living in a productive democratic society. All citizens must have a shared commitment to offer students the best possible education. Parents have a special responsibility to participate in the activity of their children’s schools. Children and schools benefit greatly when parents and educators work closely together to shape school policies and practices and to ensure that public education supports the societal values of their community without undermining family values and convictions.

VI. Conduct of Public Disputes

Civil debate, the cornerstone of a true democracy, is vital to the success of any effort to improve and reform America’s public schools.

Personal attacks, name-calling, ridicule and similar tactics destroy the fabric of our society and undermine the educational mission of our schools. Even when our differences are deep, all parties engaged in public disputes should treat one another with civility and respect, and should strive to be accurate and fair. Through constructive dialogue we have much to learn from one another.

Conclusion – This Statement of Principles is not an attempt to ignore or minimize differences that are important and abiding, but rather a reaffirmation of what we share as American citizens across our differences. Democratic citizenship does not require a compromise of our deepest convictions

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

First Amendment of the United States Constitution

“More than 200 years after their enactment, the first 16 words of the Bill of Rights undergird the boldest and most successful experiment in religious freedom in human history. Despite periodic outbreaks of nativism, anti-Semitism and religious conflict, Americans can be justly proud that we begin the new century as one nation of many peoples and faiths.”

So writes Charles Haynes, a First Amendment scholar and a master teacher and change agent. The interfaith achievement in America he so properly lauds has had to be earned every step of the way. Religion in the public classroom has generated special difficulties, particularly since the sixties when new immigrant communities brought the religions of the world into our neighborhoods and public schools. Religious cultural wars helped keep the religion in schools pot boiling.

 Charles C. Haynes

Charles C. Haynes

Professor Haynes has explored this confusing territory in six clear, coherent books, numerous articles, a column titled “Inside the First Amendment,” conference presentations, media profiles, and several websites. In all, he leads us on a journey from cultural wars to common ground.

His academic achievements are easily matched by his activism, working to transform public education in the United States in ways that live up to the promise of the First Amendment. Specifically, for more than two decades he has been the principal organizer and drafter of consensus guidelines on religious liberty in schools, endorsed by a broad range of religious and educational organizations.

As Dr. Haynes explains, this country once was dominated by what can be called “sacred public schools,” where a single religious tradition (historically Protestant Christianity) was taught and practiced. For much of the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, “sacred schools” dominated the country. Litigating outsiders, though, made a strong First Amendment case that school boards should not be spending taxpayer money to impose any particular religious tradition.

After the Supreme Court decisions of the early 1960s, striking down school sponsored religious practices, many public schools became what Haynes calls “naked public schools,” by keeping religion out entirely. Many public school classrooms became religion-free zones where where any discussion of religion was excluded, as if that satisfied the rigors of the First Amendment any better than what the “sacred schools” provided.

In the late eighties, starting in California, a third approach made its entrance, a model Haynes calls a “civil public school,” where religion is included in the classroom within First Amendment frameworks and guidelines. Through years of dialogue, conservatives and progressives, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim educators – along with academic specialists and school administrators – joined hands in agreeing to consensus guidelines, including a document titled “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy: A Statement of Principles” (see sidebar). It represents a level of religious, civil agreement among the full diversity of stakeholders that shames what politicians achieve these days. The most important of the six principles is the fourth, where a student’s religious liberty rights are the issue:

Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.

Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.

Crafting this language and generating the ‘buy-in’ of religious leaders, teachers, and policy makers is an historic contribution to religion in America, and Charles C. Haynes has been the point-person. If the United States were to adopt the Japanese tradition of identifying certain individuals as Living Cultural Treasures, he would be an obvious candidate for having championed this cause so effectively.

While he is delighted with where we have come, Haynes is grieved by how much work it ahead to truly implement what the principles invoke. In Fairfax, Virginia, public schools offer 11 elective courses on world religions and interfaith relationships. They are the rare exception. In Modesto, California, the high-school freshmen requirement to take a course on world religions is the only such requirement in the country.

 Face to Faith facilitates interfaith dialogue among students using videoconferences and online community.

Face to Faith facilitates interfaith dialogue among students using videoconferences and online community.

One of the most exciting, innovative projects, Haynes notes, a clear demonstration of how much more is possible, is Face to Faith, sponsored by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Already active in 19 countries, Face to Faith engages students of many faithstraditions and beliefs in learning from, with, and about one another through videoconferencing es and online community development.

“In the United States, religion is at least mentioned in the public school curriculum. But we are a long way from taking religion seriously. Much more needs to be done to ensure religious literacy.” To do better, Haynes contends, “Much more teacher education is necessary.” To that end, he and his colleagues have created a free, downloadable library of trustworthy resources relating to religion in public schools and the panoply of other important issues the emerge from the First Amendment.

A Parent’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools is a short pamphlet published by the National PTA and the First Amendment Center. Fifteen important questions are asked and answered. A Spanish version is available.

A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, from the First Amendment Center, is like the Parent’s Guide, but a bit longer, with 18 important questions asked and answered.

Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools (2007) is the big book, the comprehensive guide that serious students will want to review.

The First Amendment in Public Schools – A Curriculum Unit for High School Students provides an entire curriculum, including lesson plans and critical resources.

Among the best First Amendment websites are Religious Freedom Education, the First Amendment Center.

1 American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Christian Educators Association International, Christian Legal Society, Council on Islamic Education, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Evangelicals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., National Council for the Social Studies, National Education Association, National PTA, National School Boards Association, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. This Statement of Principles can be found online in chapter two of Finding Common Ground: a Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools, written and edited by Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas (First Amendment Center, 2001).