New guide aids cooperation between schools, religious communities

Wednesday, July 7, 1999

  • Public Schools & Religious Communities brochure

  • ARLINGTON, Va. — Violence in schools and not enough resources to improve educational quality show that public schools need community help,
    supporters of a new guide to creating partnerships between schools and religious institutions said at a press conference today.

    “Public Schools and Religious Communities: A First Amendment Guide,”
    co-authored by The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, the American Jewish Congress, the Christian Legal Society and co-signed by 12 other organizations, was launched at the World Center news conference. Charles Haynes, senior scholar of the First Amendment Center, said the guide offered a constitutional framework by which schools and religious communities can cooperate in the interest improving the state of public education.

    “Schools and religious communities need as close to a safe harbor as we can
    provide on these issues if they’re going to go forward,” Haynes said.
    “Otherwise, people are going to continue to be paralyzed.”

    The guidelines are supported by the U.S. Department of Education. Wilson
    Goode, an Education Department official speaking at the press conference for
    Secretary of Education Richard Riley, said, “As these guidelines indicate,
    America’s schools and religious communities have different and distinct
    missions, yet there are many ways that they can join hands to help our
    children grow and learn within a proper constitutional framework.”

    The guide gives examples of partnerships between public schools and religious institutions, such as religious leaders giving crisis counseling, religious organizations offering mentoring programs, and community religious centers housing after-school activities and providing shelter.

    Steven McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom, said that if religious centers had been open to students in the Chicago public school system, students’ lives would be safer.

    He cited the case of one student who was sexually assaulted on her way to
    school. She had tried to find safety in three different houses of worship,
    only to find them all locked.

    “Public schoolchildren can be doing homework in a temple’s classroom, rather
    than doing drugs outside on the street,” McFarland said. “They can be shooting hoops in the Catholic school gym rather than shooting school gang members.”

    For a public school and a religious institution to form a constitutional partnership, Haynes said, it is essential that all of the community’s
    institutions — not only other religious organizations, but also social and business organizations — be offered the opportunity to provide similar support.

    He hopes the new guidebook will send a message that there are ways for the
    whole community to work together.

    “If we can’t work together in supporting the mission of public education,
    then public schools don’t have much of a future,” Haynes said. “These are our schools. They belong to all of us. They are where our future is being shaped.”