Religion back in classroom after 35 years

Sunday, September 13, 1998

In Abington, Pa., the controversy over religion in the schools has finally come full circle. You'll remember Abington if you recall Abington v. Schempp, a 1963 Supreme Court case that struck down devotional Bible-reading by school officials.

The ensuing controversy and angry debate led many educators and textbook publishers to begin avoiding religion altogether. In many districts, the pendulum swung from one extreme to the other, from schools with state-sponsored religious practices to schools resembling religion-free zones.

This week — 35 years later — Abington school district has adopted a new policy on religion that will make clear the role of religious expression in the schools. The policy was inspired by a group of parents who complained that the district wasn't doing enough to take religion seriously. This time, unlike 1963, school officials won't promote religion, but the kids' right to express their faith will be protected.

Under the policy, Abington students may pray alone or in groups (as long as they're not disruptive or coercive), distribute religious literature, share their faith with others, form religious clubs, and be released for religious instruction. As for teachers, they may teach about religion, including the Bible, as part of the educational program.

Why has this taken 35 years? In large measure, because the court's rulings in cases like Schempp have been distorted by many political and religious leaders on both sides. “Because of this one thing,” one preacher raged, “the Supreme Court of the United States has been damned by God Almighty.”

Many Americans — including many public-school officials — mistakenly believed such rhetoric: God had been kicked out of schools.

The result? In many districts, teachers were afraid to mention religion in their courses, and students were given the message that they should leave their religion at home. In other districts, especially in the South, schools continued teacher-led prayer and devotional Bible reading in defiance of the court.

What's ironic — and tragic — about this history is that the Supreme Court never intended to rid the schools of religion. If people had bothered to read the Schempp decision, they would have found that the striking-down of state-sponsored religious practices wasn't meant to be hostile toward religion.

On the contrary. “[I]t might well be said,” wrote Justice Clark for the court, “that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Goldberg added this: “Neither the State nor this Court can or should ignore the significance of the fact that a vast portion of our people believe in and worship God and that many of our legal, political and personal values derive historically from religious teachings.”

Abington's new policy is what the court had in mind in the first place. It protects the religious liberty rights of all students and makes clear that religion has a important place in the curriculum.

This time around, Abington's approach won't end in a lawsuit, because it has support from across the religious and political spectrum. The policy is based on guidelines issued by Education Secretary Richard Riley, on the “Joint Statement of Current Law,” and on the civic principles recommended by the First Amendment Center — all of which have strong support from many national religious and educational groups.

Now the challenge is to make the policy work in every school and classroom. Abington must ensure that parents and other citizens understand and support the policy. And teachers and administrators will need in-service training to implement the changes fully and fairly.

Soon, if all goes well, Abington will be remembered for more than a controversial court battle. It will be a place where Americans found common ground and did the right thing for citizens of all faiths or none.