Some state lawmakers actively seeking common ground

Sunday, November 19, 2000

After the rancor and division of the presidential race, I might not
have chosen to spend an entire morning with a roomful of politicians. But a
long-standing commitment to do just that was on the calendar months before this
messy election.

So this week I dutifully traveled to Chapel Hill to speak on “religion
and American public life” at a University of North Carolina seminar for state
legislators. And to my surprise, after nearly four hours of discussion with 22
Democrats and Republicans from 10 Southern states, my faith in the political
system was somewhat restored.

We tackled some tough issues, ranging from the Ten Commandments on
classroom walls to constitutional limits on the free exercise of religion.
Despite the strong differences of opinion in the room, the exchanges were
unfailingly civil and thoughtful.

Fully aware that I might step on some toes, I politely suggested that
state legislatures should refrain from “quick fixes” for problems such as
school violence. Posting the Ten Commandments or requiring a moment of silence
does little to change the moral climate among young people. Far more effective
are efforts to make sure that every public school is committed to comprehensive
character education.

I also urged the lawmakers to move their states beyond the false
debate over “school prayer.” Many Americans still mistakenly believe that the
choice in public schools is between state-sponsored prayer and no prayer at

Our state leaders need to let their constituents know that there are
many ways in which religious expression by students in a public school is
protected under current law. Unfortunately, confusion in school districts about
just what the First Amendment does and doesn't permit continues to trigger
conflicts and lawsuits throughout the nation.

The more we discussed these and other hot-button issues, the more I
came to respect these legislators as intelligent public servants who defy the
stereotypes often portrayed in the media.

It was heartening to discover that our state legislatures include
people like Hillman Frazier of Mississippi. He's an African-American senator
currently chairing the commission charged with making a recommendation on
possible changes to the Mississippi state flag. (The current one includes the
Confederate battle flag.) After speaking with him, I concluded that if anyone
can find a meaningful resolution to that divisive issue, it's Sen. Frazier.

Mitch Landrieu, a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives,
also impressed me. He's interested in exploring new ways to bring together
people on both sides of polarized debates over issues such as abortion and
capital punishment.

Can we find some common ground on particular public-policy proposals
without compromising our deep convictions? Rep. Landrieu is convinced that we
must at least try.

After so much negative rhetoric about our political leaders in recent
months, it's instructive to be reminded of just how many dedicated and
committed people work in our state capitals.

If we want the word “politician” used as a compliment rather than an
insult, we need to elect more people like those gathered in Chapel Hill this

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