First Amendment framework keeps religious discussions civil

Sunday, February 9, 1997

As a child, I was one of a small religious minority in school.
I felt totally left out and alienated, and my parents did not
know enough to speak up for me. Under the First Amendment, what
protection is offered to the “voiceless” child?
Barbara Brodsky, Patchogue, N.Y.

If the public school is doing something either to promote or
denigrate religion, then the First Amendment has been violated. Teachers and administrators have a civic duty to make sure that the rights of all students are protected, whether anyone speaks up or not.

Constitutional wrongs should be corrected without waiting for
parents or students from minority faiths to object to these practices.
Sadly, “speaking out” often triggers anger and resentment
toward small religious groups.

Members of majority faiths should remember that it is their civic
duty to take responsibility for guarding the rights of all citizens.
After all, everyone is a minority somewhere in the United States.
Baptists in Mississippi or Mormons in Utah might not often feel
the need for First Amendment protection. But Baptists in Utah
or Mormons in Mississippi surely understand how important it is
for the majority to be sensitive to the rights of the minority.

At the beginning of every school year, Martha Ball, a social
studies teacher in Salt Lake City, informs her students that studying
history means studying about the role of religion. She asks her
students to consider how they want to be treated in the classroom
when differences arise about religion or any other issue. Together,
she and her students work on the ground rules for class discussion.

The students begin by examining the First Amendment religious
liberty principles that are our national “ground rules”
for living with our deepest differences. What does it mean to
recognize that everyone has the inalienable right of religious
liberty? Why is it important that citizens take responsibility
for guarding that right for all others, even those with whom they
disagree? And how can we learn to debate our differences with
civility and respect?

After considering the First Amendment, Martha Ball's students
write about and discuss how the “3Rs” of religious liberty
— rights, responsibilities, and respect — may be applied in
the classroom. They make a compact with one another to practice
the principles of religious liberty.

Martha reports that creating a civic framework in her classroom
has transformed her teaching. She feels freer to teach more about
the role of religion in history because her students are better
prepared to discuss religious issues without resorting to personal
attacks or angry debates. The students know that Mrs. Ball will
try hard to teach about religion accurately. They also know that
they have the right to express their own religious views, but
that they should do so respectfully

If teachers and schools follow Ball's example, no child should
feel left out or alienated in our public schools. In a classroom
that models the First Amendment, teachers will teach more about
religion, but they will do so with fairness and sensitivity.
Students will speak more about their personal beliefs, but they
will be taught to treat one another with civility even when they
differ. This is the vision — and the promise — of the First