God, schools and public opinion: moving to the center?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Loud and extreme. Those are the voices dominating the debate in the 150-year-old battle over God in the public school classroom. But that might change now that growing numbers of Americans seem to be moving toward a common-sense middle ground.

At least that’s my optimistic reading of the numbers in the 2005 State of the First Amendment survey released by the First Amendment Center this month.

Consider the “school prayer” conflict, a favorite hot button pushed regularly by some politicians and religious leaders to whip up hostility toward the “godless” public schools. Five years ago, 48% of Americans strongly agreed that teachers and other public school officials should be allowed to lead prayers in public schools. Today, that number has dropped to 35%.

What caused the shift in public opinion?  It could be that more people now realize that teacher-led prayer isn’t the only – or best – way for kids to express their faith in a public school. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Education sent guidelines to every principal in the nation, making it clear that students do have a right to pray in schools – as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

The Supreme Court may have taken the state out of the school-prayer business, but God has never been kicked out of any classroom. Unfortunately, many school officials (and many parents) still haven’t gotten the message. According to the survey, half of the American people believe that students in public schools have “too little religious freedom.”

Beyond the prayer debate, a sensible center may also be emerging on other religion-in-schools issues. In the wake of last December’s brouhaha over Christmas, the survey asked people about “seasonal programs” in public schools. Removing all religion from December programs is supported by only 20% of respondents. On the other end of the spectrum, Nativity re-enactments with Christian music are endorsed by 36%.

But a middle-of-the-road 33% favor “assembly programs in December that have music from the Christian tradition, but religious music should not dominate.” This is exactly the advice given in the consensus guidelines sent out in 2000 and endorsed in recent years by a broad range of religious and educational groups.

Contrary to the myths perpetuated by culture-warriors on both sides, public schools don’t have to choose between either holding a church service or taking Christ out of Christmas. A third model – educational assemblies that appropriately include religion – appears to be gaining public support.

On the Ten Commandments issue, there’s less middle ground – at least at first glance. A majority 64% support allowing government officials to post the Decalogue inside public school classrooms, down only slightly from last year’s 68%.

But a closer look reveals that 52% of Americans see displays of the commandments in public buildings as primarily a statement about the roots of our laws, not state endorsement of religion. This is a starting point, at least, for an educational solution. Although the Supreme Court has struck down as unconstitutional attempts to permanently post the Ten Commandments in classrooms, the Court has also made clear that academic teaching about biblical ideas as part of a course in history or literature is permissible under the First Amendment.

Finally, on the question of school distribution of fliers from religious organizations about youth programs, an issue that has sparked lawsuits around the nation, 76% of Americans want public schools to treat religious groups like all other community groups. Is “equal treatment” for religious and other community-youth programs a common-ground solution? The public seems to think so.

Reading a trend toward moderation into these results may be wishful thinking. But a First Amendment approach – one that keeps school officials from promoting or denigrating religion, but simultaneously protects the religious-liberty rights of students – appears to be gaining public support.

After 150 years of conflict, even small doses of common sense are signs of hope.

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