Religion in schools not an all-or-nothing proposition, Haynes tells civil rights commission

Thursday, May 21, 1998

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights convened the first of three public hearings yesterday to find out if something needs to be done about religious discrimination in public schools.

Among the 14 subpoenaed to testify at the commission’s Washington, D.C., headquarters was Charles Haynes, senior scholar with the First Amendment Center, who spoke in his testimony of the “urgent need for public education to live up to the promise of the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.”

“For too much of our history, extremes have dominated this debate,” Haynes testified. On one end of the spectrum: the “sacred public school,” he said, where a single religion dominates school practices and policies. On the other end is the “naked public school,” where religion has no place whatever.

The good news, he said, is that there is a third model: the “civil public school,” in which students’ religious rights are protected and school administrators remain neutral toward religion, such that religion can be taught about but not inculcated.

The hearings were called to determine whether Congress and the president should take more action to protect students from discrimination in public schools for their deeply held religious beliefs, said Commission Chairman Mary Frances Berry.

President Clinton issued official guidelines for religious activities in the public schools in 1995. The guidelines, in part, noted that “nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones.”

Berry said those guidelines have “helped clear up much of the confusion about school prayer.”

Haynes agreed that the guidelines have helped, but that more efforts are needed to help insure that public schools do not become religion-free zones.

“You would be amazed how many teachers are unsure whether God can be mentioned by a student in class,” he said.

Haynes told the commission that the situation could be improved with wider distribution of the administration’s guidelines, more staff training, a state curriculum on religious studies, improved textbooks and courses instructing teachers how to broach the topic of religion.

Haynes added that the misunderstandings of the proper role for religion in the public schools has led to infringements of the First Amendment.

“Teachers do not understand that they cannot promote religion while working as teachers. Most are ignorant of the Equal Access Act and have no idea about the boundaries of religion within the public schools,” he said.

At the other extreme, Haynes testified, most textbook publishers and curriculum developers omit all mention of religion in study texts and lesson plans.

“Silence is hostility. … To be fair and neutral, religion should be included in the debate,” said Haynes. “Leaving it out and ignoring it is taking sides.”

Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told the commission of another real danger — communities that pressure school administrators and teachers to indoctrinate schoolchildren in Christianity.

Lynn pointed to the situation in a public school district in Alabama as proof. Teachers there were permitted for years to promote Christianity. A federal judge last year ordered the teachers to stop aiding and abetting student religious practices during school hours.

“They can’t force their ideas on unwilling and unsuspecting students,” Lynn said.

The commission will hold a second public hearing on June 12 in New York City and a third June 23 at a place to be decided. Once the hearings are completed, the commission will compile and submit a report with findings and recommendations to the president and to Congress. It has no enforcement role.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.