End religion war before it begins

Sunday, December 1, 1996

What is the role of public school educators in the conflicts
over religion in the schools? Is it the responsibility of teachers
and administrators to fix our social ills?
— Marion Leadholdt,
Spartanburg, S.C.

It is tragic and destructive when schools become battlegrounds
in the “culture war” over religion and values in public
education. The shouting matches and lawsuits that divide many
communities make it difficult for teachers to teach and students
to learn.

The solution is for public schools to do a better job of addressing
issues concerning religion and values before a crisis erupts.
This is not fixing social ills; it is listening to the real concerns
of parents about how their deepest convictions are treated in
the classroom.

Some administrators decide it is too risky to deal with religion
and values. Why stir up controversy where there is none? This
is the “let sleeping dogs lie” approach to culture war

While there may be some risk in raising issues when there is
no apparent conflict, the greater risk is to do nothing. By trying
to avoid controversy, administrators and school boards allow distrust
and anger to build in the community.

A good first step would be for the school board to appoint a
task force that will help the community to find common ground
on the role of religion and values in the schools. A school district
in Ramona, Calif., took this step by appointing a “Common
Ground Task Force” that represents many different points
of view. The membership includes, among others, a local conservative
Christian minister, a Jewish community leader, liberal and conservative
parents, teachers and administrators. After much discussion and
careful consideration, they now have a comprehensive policy on
religion in the schools that enjoys wide support in the community

It is very important that parents and other community members,
including religious leaders, be fully represented in this process.
The most important stakeholders, of course, are parents. Public
school officials win the trust of their community when they affirm
that parents have the primary responsibility for the upbringing
of their children, including their education.

The first task of the group should be to agree on a set of ground
rules for conducting the work of the task force. How we debate
is almost as important as what we debate. Personal attacks, name-calling,
and similar tactics tear communities apart and undermine the educational
mission of our schools. All sides need to commit themselves to
civil debate and constructive dialogue.

Once the ground rules are in place and diverse views are represented
at the table, communities often find that there is wide agreement
on the role of religion and values in the schools.

The vast majority of American citizens from across the religious
and political spectrum want to protect the religious liberty rights
of all students. Most Americans also want to see religion treated
fully and fairly in the curriculum. And most Americans want schools
to teach the shared moral values of their community. We can agree
to do all this without imposing religion or undermining the faith
commitments of parents and students.

It is time to end the culture war that is tearing apart many
communities and alienating many citizens from the public schools.
As American citizens, we can and must develop out of our differences
a shared understanding of the role of religion and values in public
schools. Only then will we move from battleground to common ground.