No one loses when specific disputes lead to broad solutions

Sunday, March 16, 1997

“How can resolution of a sensitive religion-in-schools issue
be reached in a community when it is likely that the solution
will result in one party being a winner and the other being a
Richard Lappert, Hartford, Conn.

Because we are a democracy, there will be winners and losers
when public-policy decisions are made. But there are ways to make
sure that all citizens are treated fairly in the decision-making
process and that “losers” on one issue have the opportunity
to be “winners” on another.

Let's take the South Orangetown, N.Y., school district as an
example. When a dispute arose about the use of religious symbols
in school hallways during December, the superintendent and school
board appointed a representative community task force to examine
not only that conflict but also to consider how religion was treated
in the curriculum throughout the school year.

As a result of this broad mandate, both sides found themselves
winners on some issues even as they lost on others. Those who
wanted devotional holiday displays in the schools lost that argument.
But they won a commitment from the school district to make sure
that study about religion, including religious holidays, was included
in the curriculum. On the other side, those who wanted to exclude
religion completely from the public schools lost because there
is a constitutional role for religion in the curriculum. But they
also won by making sure that teachers taught about religion
without promoting it.

The approach taken in South Orangetown suggests that when a crisis
erupts over a specific religious-liberty issue, school officials
and community members should take the opportunity to address a
range of related issues. Considered in isolation, controversies
about Christmas, graduation prayer, religious clubs, etc., will
inevitably result in winners and losers. Considered together,
schools are able to say yes to a role for religion, even as they
must say no to state-sponsored religious practices.

Once the commitment is made to work for a comprehensive religion-in-schools
policy, the place to begin is in areas where agreement is most
likely to be achieved. By starting with the role of religion in
the curriculum, South Orangetown was able to reach consensus on
the importance of study about religion in history, literature
and other subjects. This gave the task force a foundation of trust
from which to tackle other, more divisive issues.

Given the opportunity, the vast majority of parents, teachers,
administrators, and school board members will commit to principled
dialogue and will work for fair, open public schools. While it
is true that a small number of people on all sides of these issues
resist efforts to reach common ground, most Americans want to
find a way forward that best serves the students and the community.
We have found this to be true in every region of the country and
across all religious and political lines.