Schools, teachers need tools to handle religion

Sunday, March 14, 1999

If we're ever going to take religious liberty seriously in the public schools, we'll need people like Susan Mogull in every school district.

This week in Sacramento, Calif., I found Susan hard at work encouraging her local schools to deal with religious issues. As a parent and a leader in the Jewish community, Susan has seen her share of First Amendment violations in schools. She knows firsthand what's at stake in getting religion right in public education.

But instead of advising schools or parents to “call a lawyer,” Susan is telling them to work together to find common ground.

This may surprise you, since most folks who read the establishment clause of the First Amendment as strictly as Susan does — as a high wall of separation between church and state — tend to shy away from being pro-active about religion in the public schools.

But Susan understands that separating church from state doesn't mean separating religion from public schools. In the lives of students and in the curriculum, religion is inevitably in the schools. Ignoring issues about religion doesn't make them go away; it only leads to more conflict and distrust.

This past week, Susan arranged for three large California school districts in the Sacramento region to get involved in something called the California 3Rs Project (Rights, Responsibilities and Respect). Teams of administrators, teachers, parents and religious leaders came together to consider how to address religious issues in school policies and in the curriculum.

With all of the challenges California schools face these days, why does Susan think that religious issues are so important?

Because exploding religious diversity and ongoing culture-war battles are immediate and real challenges that the schools must address. A bewildering variety of beliefs and practices come through the schoolhouse door every morning, and California has state standards and frameworks that call for considerable teaching about religion in the social studies.

That's why Susan isn't waiting for the next conflict to erupt. Through the California 3Rs Project, she's trying to make sure that the schools in her region know how to protect the religious-liberty rights of students of all faiths and none. And she wants to ensure that teachers know how to deal objectively with religion in the curriculum. (When the new state social-studies standards were written and adopted last year, Susan was right there making sure that religious-liberty principles were treated fully and that religion was included in ways that were constitutional and academic.)

This summer, for the third consecutive year, Susan's offering Sacramento teachers a five-day institute on religious liberty in the schools. In the fall, she's organized a course for teachers that will cover nine major religious traditions, to be taught by scholars from California State University, Sacramento.

Susan understands that it's not enough to tell teachers to teach about religions or to expect administrators to resolve religious conflicts. Both teachers and administrators need the education and the resources to do their jobs right.

Citizens like Susan Mogull are doing us all a great service. After all, California is the bellwether state for dealing with religious and cultural diversity, and if we can find common ground in the public schools of California, we can do it anywhere.

If we can't, then there are difficult days ahead for our schools — and our nation — in the 21st century.