Panelists discuss religious conflicts within public schools

Tuesday, July 7, 1998


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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Is an alleged lack of respect for Christian parents and students by public school officials eroding the government's ability to provide an education for a diverse nation?


The suggestion that public schools provide a hostile atmosphere for Christian students was one issue discussed today at a Freedom Forum First Amendment Center panel, “When Faith and the First Amendment Clash.”


Ray Moore, one of five panelists, maintained that the nation's public schools are a danger to younger Christians' spiritual growth and that their parents should start yanking them out.


“I realize that the idea is controversial and provocative,” said Moore, director of Exodus 2000, a South Carolina-based organization that advocates a mass exodus of Christians from public schools before 2000. “I have been favorably predisposed to Christian schooling” for years, Moore told an audience at the First Amendment Center on the Vanderbilt University campus.


He said he started his organization last year after deciding that the public schools were a failure for religious students. His group has sought endorsements of major religious conservative groups such as the Colorado-based Focus on the Family.


Moore's call for religious balkanization was the most radical suggestion from the panel for solving the nation's continuing dilemma over religion's proper role in the public education system. Much of the discussion, moderated by First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler, centered on the government's and parents' roles in educating America's youth.
The suggestion that public school teachers and officials were not doing enough to protect and nurture younger Christians' spiritual health rang hollow with Gwendolyn Watson, a Nashville middle school principal.


“I do not think it is the public school's place to promote one religion over another,” Watson said. “It is the duty of parents to help kids decide what religion to practice.”


Jimmy Allen, a Georgia minister and former president of the Southern Baptist convention, also questioned the thinking behind Moore's call for a mass exodus. He said that “faith should be able to stand up to a world of ideas,” and that a mass withdrawal of Christians from public schools would “concede a defeat.”


The Freedom Forum's senior scholar, Charles Haynes, however, said that Moore's concerns about the atmosphere for religion in public schools must be taken seriously.


“If we hope to keep our public schools full for the task of nation building, we will have to take the claims of religious insensitivity seriously,” said Haynes, co-author of Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education.


Haynes said that although the days of a “sacred public school,” were for the most part gone, many religious people were now concerned about the “naked public school,” where often religious expression is silenced or ignored.


“The solution is to live up to the values embedded in the First Amendment, now,” Haynes said. “Fairness is what we need to strive for in the public schools. The public schools should be a place where students of all faiths can share their religious views.”