Religious liberty gains ground in year 2000

Sunday, December 17, 2000

By any measure, the first year of the new century was a banner year
for advocates of religious liberty in public education.

Why? Because after more than 150 years of debate and conflict, a
national consensus on the constitutional role of religion in schools is finally
reaching local districts across the nation.

The year began with the U.S. Department of Education's extraordinary
mailing of religious-liberty guidelines to every public school in America.

And the year is closing with the news that all national and state
standards now mandate teaching about religions in social-studies classrooms.

With all of the hand-wringing about a “divided America” in
the aftermath of the election, it's heartening to note that most religious and
educational groups, from left to right, endorse these developments.

Despite this emerging consensus, however, the task of translating
guidelines and standards into lasting change in local schools remains
formidable. Let's look at what are likely to be three of the biggest challenges
in 2001.

Creating local policies: It's good news that all principals
received religious-liberty
last January. But here's the bad news: many, if not most, didn't
bother to read them.

That's why a teacher in Texas refused to allow a child to write an
essay about Jesus, even though all the other students were allowed to write
about their favorite hero in history. And that's why a principal in Mississippi
sponsored an evangelical celebration during the school day in violation of the
First Amendment. Districts without legal policies and guidelines make bad
decisions and provoke ugly lawsuits.

By contrast, the Richardson, Texas, school district put in place
sound, constitutional policies developed by citizens representing a broad
cross-section of the local community. That's exactly what every district needs
to do.

Preparing teachers: It's also good news that state
social-studies standards call for at least some teaching about religion. But
here again, there's bad news: many teachers don't feel ready to tackle serious
discussion of the world's major faiths.

Only California and Utah have statewide projects focused on helping
teachers teach about various religions in ways that are both constitutional and
educational. While some districts offer in-service opportunities in religious
studies, most do not. It's unfair and counterproductive to ask teachers to do
something as challenging as teach about religion without providing them the
professional support they need to do it right.

Ending the Bible wars: Finally, it's very good news that we
now have consensus guidelines to tell public schools what a constitutional
elective in study about the Bible should look like. The bad news is that some
school districts ignore this advice and try to set up Bible courses that are
unconstitutional. Recent fights in Memphis, Dallas and San Jose demonstrate how
volatile this issue remains nationwide.

It would help if every district contemplating a Bible course would
follow the lead of the Baldwin County, Ala., schools. School leaders there are
taking time to find good resources for teaching about the Bible in a way that's
fair and accurate, and they are offering a summer institute to prepare teachers
who will participate in next year's pilot program.

On a national level, the National Bible Association is developing a
Bible curriculum that adheres to the constitutional guidelines for public
schools. A number of universities are planning to offer teachers educational
opportunities to learn how to teach about the Bible.

The cause of religious liberty in public schools advanced greatly in
the year 2000. Most educators, like most other Americans, agree that kids have
religious-liberty rights that should be protected. And most agree that academic
study of religion should be included in the curriculum.

2001 is the year for public schools to turn this agreement into
reality by meeting the challenges of policy development and teacher preparation
within the guiding principles of the First Amendment.

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