Schools made strides, missteps on religion

Sunday, June 18, 2000

The 1999-2000 school year will be remembered as the best of times and worst of times for religious liberty in public schools.

This was the year when leading religious and educational groups found new common ground on some of the most challenging First Amendment issues facing schools and communities. But it was also the year of many bitter conflicts, wasteful lawsuits, frivolous legislation and strange court decisions.

Here are my nominees for the “best and worst” developments of the last nine months.

Best new agreement: After more than 150 years of fighting, consensus was reached on the role of the Bible in public schools. Twenty religious and educational groups, ranging from the Anti-Defamation League to the Christian Legal Society, endorsed “The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide.” Schools now have constitutional and educational guidelines for Bible electives and for protecting the religious-liberty rights of students.

Worst new movement: The national movement to encourage public schools to post the Ten Commandments has sparked lawsuits and fights in a growing number of states. In spite of the fact that the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to post the Commandments in schools 20 years ago, some political and religious leaders persist in pushing the practice. They appear oblivious to the dangers of entangling the government with religion. And they ignore the fact that Jews, Protestants, and Catholics have different versions and interpretations of the Commandments. A better way to include the Commandments would be to make sure that the history curriculum includes study about their meaning as understood within the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Best new trend in public education: More and more schools are adopting quality character education programs. Parents and educators are beginning to work together to identify the shared moral and civic virtues — such as honesty, caring, respect, and responsibility — that they wish taught and modeled in all aspects of school life. The growing recognition that character education is a core mission of public schools is critical to the future of public education and our nation.

Worst decision by a school official: The winner is the Mississippi high-school principal who allowed hundreds of students to hold a five-hour religious revival in the school during the school day. To make matters worse, she and other staff members joined in. The runner-up is the Texas teacher who reportedly told two students that they couldn't bring their Bibles to school.

Best decision by an administrator: After a report by People for the American Way Foundation found evidence of unconstitutional Bible courses in 14 Florida school districts, Florida's Commissioner of Education acted decisively to revise the guidelines for Bible electives. He has also promised technical assistance to schools with Bible courses, including new resource materials and teacher training.

Worst court decision: A New York elementary teacher rejected a drawing by a child because it contained a figure praying. The teacher feared that putting up the “religious” poster alongside other student posters would send a message that the school “endorsed” religion. That strikes me as unreasonable and unfair. But a federal judge upheld the teacher's right to make that decision.

Best legal settlement: In order to avoid a court battle, a North Carolina school district changed its uniform policy to allow exemptions on religious grounds. In an important victory for freedom of religion, nine-year old Aaron returned to school without a uniform.

Best news for the future of religious liberty in schools: This year for the first time in American history, every public-school principal received consensus guidelines on religion in public schools. This mailing by the U.S. Department of Education was a dramatic step forward in the effort to promote religious liberty in every school.

What's the message in all this?

The growing national consensus about religious liberty in public schools is an extraordinary blueprint for moving from battleground to common ground. But the continuing conflicts and lawsuits are reminders that this consensus means little unless local school districts develop their own policies and practices consistent with the principles of the First Amendment.