‘A Vision of Religious Liberty in Schools’

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

Text of testimony by Freedom Forum Senior Scholar Charles C. Haynes before the United States Commission on Civil Rights, given May 20, 1998.

Thank you for holding this hearing, and for the invitation to testify about some of the most challenging and significant issues confronting our schools and our nation. For the millions of Americans deeply concerned about the future of public education, your inquiry could not be more timely or important.

For too much of our history, extremes have dominated this debate. On one end of the spectrum are those who advocate what might be called a “sacred public school” where one religion (theirs) is preferred in school practices and policies. Characteristic of the early history of public schools, this approach still survives in some parts of the country. In more recent decades, some on the other end of the spectrum have pushed for a “naked public school” where religion is kept out in the name of a mistaken reading of the First Amendment. This view is responsible for the confusion among some educators about the religious-liberty rights of students and the silence about religion in much of the curriculum. Both of these models are unjust and, I would argue, unconstitutional.

The good news is that there is now a third model — one that has growing support from across the religious and political spectrum: the civil public school where religious-liberty rights of students are fully protected and school officials remain neutral concerning religion. This vision of religious liberty in schools has been articulated in a statement of principles [titled] Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy, first released in 1995 and now endorsed by 24 educational and religious groups. Principle IV states:

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.

The challenge, of course, is to translate this vision of what I call a civil public school into actual policies and practices that change the school culture in local districts. Over the past five years the First Amendment Center has attempted to do just that. We have assisted hundreds of communities from New York to California, helping them to move beyond the battleground of the culture wars to the common ground provided by the First Amendment. In recent years these efforts have been greatly aided by the new legal consensus about the religious-liberty rights of students, especially as reflected in the President Clinton's directive to all school superintendents in 1995.

From Salisbury, Md., to Ramona, Calif., we have seen remarkable change. New policies protecting student religious expression have rebuilt trust with many religious parents who had long viewed public schools as hostile to their faith. In-service training has helped thousands of teachers to teach about religion in ways that are constitutionally permissible and educationally sound. We have discovered that where the First Amendment is tried, it works.

In spite of the significant progress we have seen in recent years, many communities remain bitterly divided over religion in the schools, many school boards are still without policies concerning religion, and much of the curriculum treats religion superficially, if at all. Clearly, we still have some distance to go and much work to do if we are to ensure that religious liberty and religion are taken seriously in every public school. To that end, I recommend the following:

  1. Every school district must develop a comprehensive religious-liberty policy that reflects the current legal consensus and provides a shared vision of religious liberty widely agreed to by the community.
  2. State Boards of Education as well as local school districts must commit themselves to staff development so that all administrators and teachers understand and apply First Amendment principles in ways that guard the religious-liberty rights of every student and parent.
  3. State curriculum frameworks and national standards must include significant study of religion across the curriculum.
  4. Local school districts must offer more electives in religious studies, and religious studies must become a certifiable field so that there will be teachers to teach them.
  5. Schools of Education must do more to prepare teachers and administrators to address religious-liberty issues in the school culture and religion in the curriculum.
  6. States must encourage textbook publishers to provide textbooks and other materials that include substantial treatment of religion.

At the heart of each of these recommendations is the urgent need for public education to live up to the promise of the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment. I strongly urge this Commission to speak out clearly and forcefully about the appropriate constitutional and educational role of religion in the public schools. By so doing, you will help Americans to reforge a common vision for the common good in public education — and in our nation.