Religious-liberty attorney addresses annual parents and teachers convention

Monday, June 29, 1998

Nashville, Tenn. — Responding to a growing concern that the nation's public schools are increasingly hostile to students' religious beliefs, a religious-liberty attorney told members of the National PTA that the First Amendment provides an open and fair field for all religious-leanings.

Parents and public school teachers — all members of the national organization that advocates parental involvement in public education — gathered on Saturday to attend workshops and listen to educational leaders on various problems facing public schools throughout the nation. The workshops and seminars were part of the National PTA's annual convention.

In addition to school violence and crumbling school buildings, PTA members discussed the continuing concern over the proper parameters for religious expression within the public schools.

Oliver Thomas, a nationally recognized religious-liberty attorney representing The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, told PTA members that public school teachers faced a diverse audience and that their challenge, in part, centered on how to appreciate and make room for an array of religious and philosophical beliefs.

Regardless of religious beliefs, Thomas said, if you are committed to the values of freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly — all imbedded in the Constitution — then “you are American as apple pie.”

Thomas said that while the nation's schools have successfully moved beyond the old paradigm of the “sacred school,” many are now seen — rightly or wrongly — as places hostile to student expression of religious beliefs.

“I understand why some conservative religious groups believe public education has become hostile toward religion,” Thomas said. “I've been in school districts where teachers have told students they cannot write about religion in class assignments,” and where some students have been told they can't say a prayer on school grounds.

Thomas said such instances contradict federal court rulings that allow voluntary student expression of religious beliefs.

To confront an exodus of religious students from the nation's public schools, Thomas told the organization it must continue to work with groups such as The Freedom Forum to ensure that the nation's public schools provide a fair and level playing field for all ideas.

Shirley Igo, the National PTA's vice-president for legislation, said that the organization has had a close relationship with The Freedom Forum regarding religious expression in public schools for several years. The PTA and The Freedom Forum issued a guideline for parents on the proper role of religion in the public schools. The guide based on the book Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education was written by Charles Haynes, a religious-liberty expert and Freedom Forum senior scholar, and Thomas. Moreover, the group has endorsed President Clinton's recently issued statement on the proper parameters for religious expression.

“We felt it was important to invite Thomas, again, to speak to our members so as to encourage them to go back to their districts and work in their schools to make them a better and more open place for all religious ideas,” Igo said. “Our schools are not places for government-organized prayer, but they must be open and friendly to all people.”

About 2,000 PTA members gathered for the four-day convention, which began June 26.