Lack of trust key factor in school suit over religious issues

Sunday, March 21, 1999

Here we go again. Three Catholic families are suing a New York school district for promoting “Satanism and occultism, pagan religions and New Age spirituality.”

This latest battle in the “culture war” battle was triggered several years ago by a student club focused on “Magic: The Gathering,” a card game with images of demons and human sacrifice that some parents found objectionable.

When the district's superintendent allowed the club to continue (after mental health experts told him that the game was harmless), the parents filed suit and identified lots of other school activities that offend their religious convictions. Earth Day ceremonies with “pledges to the Earth” made the list. So did making “worry dolls” to put under children's pillows to keep nightmares away. Field trips to a local cemetery were found offensive.

The objecting parents and students asked the court to end some of these practices and to allow them to opt out of others. School officials have defended all of the activities — and warned that “opt outs” would be chaotic and impractical.

You might be tempted to dismiss all this as just another “wacky” lawsuit — to quote one headline about the case. But before you do, think about the deeper questions raised by this fight.

Why are growing numbers of conservative religious parents so alienated from their public schools? And why can't these disputes be settled without filing suit?

After trying to negotiate scores of these conflicts, I've concluded that the core problem is lack of trust — on both sides.

Consider the parents. If they're anything like the many religious parents I've met in other places, they've probably felt for a long time that public schools today are hostile to their faith. The controversy over the “Magic” card game appears to have unleashed a long-simmering anger at how their faith and values are treated in the curriculum.

But consider also the administrators and teachers. No doubt the school district feels unfairly attacked. The administrators and teachers see nothing “religious” about Earth Day. And, from their angle of vision, making “worry dolls” wasn't intended to promote New Age religion — it's just a creative art activity for kids.

One side sees the school district's activities as promoting the occult while the other views the activities as secular and educational. These parents and school officials are speaking — or, more likely, shouting — past one another.

The backdrop to this debate is a bad track record of dealing with religion in public schools. Study about religions, including Christianity, has been largely ignored in the public-school curriculum — even though it is constitutional to teach about religion. Because of this neglect, it strikes some parents that everything else gets in the schools — and is even “promoted” — but their faith is kept out.

In this New York district, for example, a yogi came into the school to lead “stress-reduction” exercises. For the parents, this was promotion of Eastern religion. For the school, this was health education with no religious implications. It's obviously too late for this district to avoid a lawsuit.

But other districts should take this case as a wake-up call to do better. A few key steps for school leaders and parents to consider:

  1. First and foremost, all sides should take a step back and listen carefully to one another.
  2. School boards need to make sure that parents — representing a broad spectrum of opinion — are fully represented in decision-making about the curriculum.
  3. The district should consider appointing a community task force (with strong parental involvement) to develop policies about student clubs, guest speakers, and related issues.
  4. Parents need to know what the guidelines are — and what's going on in the schools.
  5. Parents, teachers, and administrators should take a close look at how religion is treated in the curriculum. Make sure that students are learning what they need to know about the major religions in history, literature and other courses.
  6. It's important for every district to have in place a clear and generous opt-out policy. If focused on a specific discussion, assignment, or activity, excusal requests should be routinely granted in order to uphold our commitment to religious liberty under the First Amendment.

When people are poles part, finding common ground is tough — and labor intensive. But it's better (and cheaper) than a lawsuit. More importantly, building common ground strengthens the fabric of our life together as American citizens.