Cooperation key to helping youths

Sunday, July 11, 1999

Public schools need all the help they can get these days. Confronted by every imaginable social problem and educational challenge, educators are reaching out to many community groups — including religious organizations.

But when schools try to work with religious groups, they often hit a wall — a wall created by misleading interpretations of the First Amendment “wall of separation” between church and state.

Rather than risk controversy and conflict, many religious leaders and educators decide to keep their distance. Others plunge ahead with cooperative programs — and invite lawsuits when the constitutional ground rules are broken.

Finally, after years of confusion about this issue, help has arrived. Last week an extraordinary coalition of 14 religious and educational groups published First Amendment guidelines for cooperative arrangements between public schools and religious communities.

The consensus guidelines represent true common ground. Lead drafters include the Christian Legal Society and the American Jewish Congress. Co-signers range from the National PTA and the National School Boards Association to the Council on Islamic Education and the U.S. Catholic Conference. The guidelines also have been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.

All of these organizations agree: Schools and religious communities may work together in many ways without violating the First Amendment. As long as constitutional principles are followed, churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship may provide such services as tutoring programs, extended day care, recreation and a safe haven for kids.

Of course, cooperative programs must be open to all responsible community groups, not just to religious organizations. And student participation may not be conditional on membership in any religious group. These arrangements are meant to help schools fulfill their educational mission; they're not opportunities for proselytizing.

The new guidelines are good news for beleaguered schools, especially in troubled inner cities. Steve McFarland of the Christian Legal Society puts it this way:

“Public-school children can be doing homework in a temple's classroom, rather than doing drugs outside on the street corner. They can be shooting hoops in the Catholic church gym, rather than shooting rival gang members …. The local church can and should be one of the public schools' best resources. Nothing in the First Amendment requires otherwise.”

With all of the challenges we face as a nation, it's long past time to get beyond the false notion that “church-state separation” means no “school-church cooperation.”

True, religious communities and public schools have different missions. But they share a deep commitment to the well-being of our children. That's why these guidelines are so important. For the sake of our shared future as a nation, it's time for public schools and religious communities to work together for the common good.

For a free copy of “Public Schools & Religious Communities: A First Amendment Guide,” write to Charles Haynes at the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn. 37212. Or request the guidelines by e-mail: