Scholar urges parent-faculty cooperation on integrating religion into school curriculum

Thursday, March 16, 2000

Charles Haynes...
Charles Haynes

With every public school in America receiving a packet from President Bill Clinton explaining the religious rights of students, one religious liberty scholar believes both faculty and parents should bond together to integrate religion into the school curriculum in a fair and balanced nature.

“The [public school] curriculum long ago lost its Protestant tone, but it wasn’t replaced by ‘let’s teach about religions.’ It was sort of silence about religion,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar for religious freedom at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

An authority on the role of religion in public schools, Haynes also serves on the board of directors of the Character Education Partnership, an organization committed to developing civic virtue and moral character in young people for a more compassionate and responsible society. He spoke at Newseum/NY Wednesday to representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, the National Conference for Community and Justice and the Interfaith Christian, Jewish, Muslim Dialogue.

Haynes said the country has been arguing about the role of religion since the founding of public schools in the 19th century. He cited the history of religious contention, such as the Bible wars in Cincinnati, where Protestant and Catholics fought to have their respective versions of their Bible read in school, and various religious riots in Boston and Philadelphia.

“It has not always been a war of words or lawsuits,” Haynes said. “It has also been in some points quite a hot and contentious arena.”

To clarify the transformation of the relationship between school and religion, Haynes outlined three types of public schools: sacred, naked and civil.

He said sacred public schools are those with Protestant beliefs woven into the curriculum. Before the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment applied to the states in the 1940s, the states could do whatever they wanted with school curricula.

“With increasing pluralism and roaring secularization in our society,” he added. “It became less and less plausible or possible to sustain a kind of sacred public school.”

Haynes then described the naked public school in which school administrators believe the only way to handle religion in a public school is to ignore it. Haynes said that from this point religion was virtually wiped out of the content of school textbooks and swiftly pushed out of the school dialogue.

For a long time, administrators and parents believed the only two ways of handling the role of religion in a public school was either adopting a sacred or naked public school policy.

Haynes declared that this is a false choice, and in the recent decade, an alternative compromise was coming to the fore: the civil public school. According to Haynes, many public schools now are working toward adopting the policies of a civil public school.

Haynes cited a principle from a pamphlet called “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy,” which he said was part of the educational packet sent out by the president to all public schools in the country.

“I think President Bill Clinton understood that the packet was something very strongly supported by people across most of the spectrum,” Haynes said. “That packet was not from the left or the right. It was not from the Jewish or Christian or Islamic or Hindu or atheist communities. It was an American packet as best we could craft it. We tried to give public schools that safe harbor where they can tackle these issues. They could work for this civil public school and do it a way that wouldn’t cause a lawsuit or a controversy.”

He quoted one of the principles in the pamphlet: “Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.” With this said, Haynes voided the sacred and naked public school system because they did not cater to this need for “fairness and respect.”

Haynes noted that the reason he believes the civil public school can work is because there is consensus between religious groups and conservatives and liberals about the alternative system. He said the civil public school is a religious liberty policy that truly reflects the consensus and law on the religious liberty of students.

“There’s no reason for people to have a lawsuit over a religious club in a public school; yet they are filed every year,” Haynes said. “We have several of those cases around the country for no good reason, except that people don’t know the law and don’t know how to apply the Equal Access Act, and so forth.”

The Equal Access Act was passed in 1984 to ensure that students in secondary public schools may form religious clubs as long as the school allows other “noncurriculum-related groups,” and outsiders such as faculty do not “direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend” the religious clubs.

Haynes also said the way people are thinking about the role of religion in a public school is shifting.

“The question before public education is not should we do it or not. The question today is how do we do it,” he said, citing three major approaches.

First, one must consider the Constitutional implications of the First Amendment. He noted a Constitutional clause that declares that state and government should be neutral to religion in public schools. This, however, does not mean schools should ignore religion.

“Neutrality does not mean hostility of religion. It doesn’t mean silence. Neutral in a word means fairness,” Haynes said, adding that the school curriculum should not take sides in religion, but should let the different religious voices of students be discussed and talked about next to secular voices.

Second, Haynes said, one should consider the educational reasons for adopting a civil public school. He said that if the school system is to teach children about how to think and function in the world at large, those children should learn about the different religions so they are better equipped to deal with people who are different from them.

“We can’t prepare people to be citizens in this world today unless they know something about religions,” he said, adding that students currently learn very little about religion from kindergarten to senior year in high school.

Haynes warned that this goal would not be easy. “The challenge is to work for a curriculum that takes religion seriously, but does so in a way that is academically accurate fair balanced, and that exposes kids to a variety of ways of seeing the world and that takes work,” he said.

Finally, Haynes said the national public school system should adopt the civil public school system for civic reasons. He said the schools should acknowledge the needs and wants of parents, from all religious backgrounds, who send their children to public school. He said parents might want to add religion to the school curriculum also in an effort to expose students to some religious knowledge.

“Our public schools, if they are the places where we shape our nation as it has been for much of our history, must be places where we can learn about one another meaningfully,” Haynes said. “To live with our deepest differences, to find that common ground as citizens and these civic principles. This is, I think, the mission of public education at its heart.”