Legal fights mark year in religion

Sunday, January 3, 1999

By my reckoning, there were fewer lawsuits and angry fights about religion in the public schools in 1998 — but still far too many. And some courageous school districts moved from battleground to common ground — but still far too few.

It was a busy year, full of complex issues and developments, in which a few highlights stood out. Here are my picks for the good, the bad, and the ugly in the 1998 debate over religion in the public schools.

Outrage of the Year: The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision that a first-grade teacher has the right to prohibit a student from reading a story out of the Beginner's Bible.

The basic facts of the matter are these: Students were permitted to read aloud a story of their own choosing. When little Zachary chose a brief account of Jacob and Esau (that didn't even mention God), the teacher wouldn't let him read it to the class because the story comes from the Bible.

This is an appalling case that should never have gone to court. All the teacher had to do was tell the class that Zachary was going to read a story from his religious tradition. To ban a story simply because it comes from the Bible is both unfair and unjust.

Let's hope this terrible decision is reversed on appeal.

Controversy of the Year: Zachary's case is part of a larger confusion about student religious expression before a “captive audience” in a public school. The courts remain divided about where to draw the line.

Mentioning religious beliefs seems OK, but when does the speech become a sermon? And what about student-initiated, student-led prayer at graduation? In some parts of the country it's legal, but in other places it's not.

Look for the Supreme Court to address the issue sometime soon.

Best News of the Year: The community of Modesto, Calif., overcame deep divisions brought to light by a “tolerance” policy and found common ground.

The fight began when the school board of Modesto included the phrase “sexual orientation” in the district's policy on safe schools. Some religious conservatives in the community feared that the words signaled an endorsement of homosexuality by the school system.

After months of debate marked by distrust and misunderstanding, all sides came together to work out their differences. Eventually they all agreed that the policy should focus on making schools safe for all students, and that such agreement doesn't require acceptance of the religion, philosophy or way of life of others.

Today the district has an approach to safe schools that is widely supported in the community. Even though differences remain, trust has been restored, and civil dialogue has replaced angry debate.

Most Discouraging Development of the Year: A number of evangelical Christian leaders issued a call for Christians to remove their kids from public schools. While many, if not most, evangelical leaders still support public education, the exodus from public schools is growing.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with religious people seeking to educate their children in a religious environment. They have every right to do so, and for some it may be the best choice.

The tragedy is that growing numbers of parents perceive public education as hostile to their faith, and that's both wrong and unnecessary. There's a great deal that public schools can do under the First Amendment to treat religion with fairness and respect. Unless more public-school leaders become pro-active on these issues, the modest stream of parents now leaving will soon become a flood.

Most Hopeful Development of the Year: The new social-studies standards for the California public schools include considerable study about religion. Now that the nation's largest state is doing more to include serious academic treatment of religion, there's some hope that other states (and textbook publishers) will do likewise.

Hero of the Year: Of all the thousands of teachers and administrators working hard to uphold the First Amendment, Richard Land deserves special recognition. He's the superintendent in DeKalb County, Ala., a school district under court order to end practices that a federal judge held to be unconstitutional.

Elected superintendent after the controversy erupted, Land inherited a legal and political mess. With quiet diplomacy, good humor, and steady nerves, Land has guided the community through a series of protests and lawsuits that would have sunk many a superintendent.

Today, Richard Land is helping his school district move beyond the court order. Soon DeKalb County will have its own religious-liberty policy, one that's consistent with the First Amendment and fair to people of all faiths or none.

Let's hope that 1999 will bring more school leaders like Superintendent Land and more success stories like Modesto's. Progress in 1998 was real and significant, but if public schools are to have a strong future, much work remains to be done.