Conflicts will continue until educators take religion seriously

Sunday, September 3, 2000

Despite a host of new guidelines and court decisions, the new school year in many communities will be filled with old conflicts about religion.

The frustration and anger of many conservative Christians over what
they still perceive as hostility to religion in public schools has inspired a
host of growing movements to “return God to the schools.”

Several Christian groups are distributing to students hundreds of
thousands of book jackets featuring the Ten Commandments.

Taking that a step further, the “Hang Ten” campaign wants to post the
commandments in all public schools. In several states there's a push to put “In
God We Trust” on the walls of every classroom.

As football season heats up, leaders of a grass-roots effort that
started in Mississippi and has spread to other southern states will encourage
fans to “spontaneously” recite the Lord's Prayer before games.

Later this month, many evangelical students across the nation will be
participating in a movement called “Scripture in Schools Week.” They'll bring
Bibles to school, wear religious T-shirts, and pass out pamphlets.

All of these high-profile initiatives are meeting strong resistance
from those who see such efforts as divisive and in violation of minority rights
— or, in the case of the Ten Commandments on the wall, an attempt to use
the state to endorse a particular religion.

What's going on? Why this sudden surge of new national and local
movements to bring religion into the schools?

Court decisions have something to do with it. After the Supreme Court
decision earlier this summer striking down prayers over school public-address
systems at football games, people in some communities vowed to find a way to
continue the long tradition of opening the game with prayer.

The Columbine tragedy is also a factor. Many Americans are urging that
something be done to address the moral and spiritual crisis among young people,
and many trace the problem back to the “removal” of God from the schools.

But the biggest reason for the proliferation of these efforts may be
the reluctance of many school officials and school boards to confront the
issues of religion and values that concern growing numbers of parents and

If, for example, all school districts had clear policies on the
religious expression of students, would people feel the need to organize a
Scripture in Schools Week to make a point about student rights?

After all, under current law students have the right to bring
scriptures to school, share their faith with others and distribute religious
literature. But unfortunately, many school officials are unaware of what is and
isn't permissible, and few districts have comprehensive policies and staff
development sessions on religious liberty.

This summer, I asked a room full of school administrators — more
than 200 of them — if they recalled receiving religious-liberty
guidelines in January from the U.S. Department of Education. Only a few hands
went up. I then asked how many had policies on these issues. A few more hands.

Therein lies the problem. All of those administrators received
consensus guidelines on the constitutional place of religion in the schools.
But few of them bothered to read the guidelines, much less develop their own
local policies in partnership with parents.

The result? School officials continue to make mistakes that alienate
religious parents and students. And many public schools continue to send a
message of hostility to religion.

This was illustrated in a recent newspaper article about the Scripture
in Schools movement. According to the account, school officials refused to
allow a student to draw the crucifixion as one of her art projects, telling her
that it was against the law. (It isn't.) The parent of that student is now a
local organizer of the Scripture in Schools Week.

If only every school would take action to protect student rights, to
encourage teaching about religion and to implement character education, far
fewer parents and students would feel they must shout to be heard.

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