Journalists examine coverage of religion, society

Monday, April 3, 2000

From left: Larr...
From left: Larry Crain, American Center for Law and Justice; Tom McCoy, Vanderbilt University; Hedy Weinberg, Tennessee ACLU.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Conflicts over religion's role in public schools could be more thoughtfully portrayed by the news media, a group of panelists suggested today at a religion and media conference at Vanderbilt University.

Journalists and radio and television broadcasters from around the country gathered for a three-day conference, “The Role of Religion in Contemporary Society,” hosted by The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and Vanderbilt University. The conference includes panel discussions ranging from student religious expression in public schools to the relationship between organized religion and the news media.

Charles Haynes, the First Amendment Center's senior scholar, described some of his efforts to help provide school officials and teachers throughout the country with guidelines for dealing with public school religious expression.

According to Haynes, a “symbolic movement” occurred late last year when President Clinton sent to every public school district in the nation a packet of information on religious expression in public education. Included in the packet were three First Amendment Center publications on religion and the public schools.

Haynes expressed disappointment that the president's action drew minimal attention in the news.

The material the Clinton administration sent out provides a model of a “civil public school,” Haynes told the group of reporters. Instead of school districts where some classrooms are inundated with Christian teachings, or, at the other extreme, districts where no religious topics are discussed at all, the First Amendment Center guidelines call for religion to be treated fairly in the public schools.

“Neutrality should approximate fairness,” Haynes said. “It is hardly neutral to teach about history and economics and not mention religion. Public schools cannot inculcate nor inhibit religion; instead they must treat religion with fairness and respect.”

Misconceptions about the First Amendment and religious-liberty jurisprudence helped spur what Haynes described as the “naked public school,” where students, teachers and administrators ignore religion. Haynes said such attitudes are prevalent in public school curricula nationwide.

“The conventional wisdom is that public school students can learn everything they need to know, with no mention of religion, to obtain a good education,” he said.

Larry Crain, senior counsel for the socially conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said the “pendulum has swung so far” that many public schools lack any religious acknowledgement whatsoever. He said such an atmosphere had produced situations where students are barred from reading Bible passages as part of school assignments, and a policy permitting student-led prayer at high school football games was found unconstitutional by a federal appeals court.

“We must realize that students are religious people and that they should not have to shed their religious beliefs at the schoolhouse gate,” Crain said.

Crain said he hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would reverse the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. The 5th Circuit ruled in Santa Fe that student-initiated prayer was permissible at graduation ceremonies but not at high school football games. High school games did not need to be thus solemnized, the 5th Circuit concluded.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, disagreed that public schools were devoid of religion. Weinberg also countered Crain's support of student prayer at football games, arguing that public schools should not let students decide if prayer should be included in school events by majoritarian rule.

“I mostly hear complaints about schools' supporting posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms or other public buildings,” Weinberg said.

Tom McCoy, a constitutional law scholar and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Law, praised Haynes for attempting to persuade public school officials to be neutral toward religion.

“The Supreme Court has said that public schools cannot endorse (or) promote … a certain type of religion,” McCoy said. But he said the high court had said schools could include religion “in a balanced education.”

McCoy wondered why the American public failed to understand the “current state of constitutional jurisprudence.” He suggested that news coverage of religious liberty in the public schools lacked competent reporting and explanation of Supreme Court rulings and legal parameters.

“There really is an impulse on the part of the media to report only controversy,” McCoy said.

In an afternoon session on the news media's relationship with organized religion, Jimmy Allen, a Georgia minister and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and John Dart, an author and former religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, passed out an updated version of a study they wrote in 1993 on press coverage of religion.

Allen and Dart contend in the just-revised Bridging the Gap report that generally coverage of several religious topics in the news was moving in a positive direction.

“Religion coverage has expanded and gotten more sophisticated,” Dart told the journalists. The Los Angeles Times now has five reporters assigned to cover religious aspects of society, he noted, and that in gene

ral magazines and newspapers are hiring more reporters to cover religion.

Allen said that any gap between reporters and representatives of organized religion could be minimized by “maintaining occasions for creative dialogue through adequate briefings and regular interaction.”