Utah schools turn to 3Rs to cope with challenge of religious diversity

Sunday, January 24, 1999

Working in Utah this past week, I met scores of public school teachers and administrators committed to the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.

Of course, for most Utah folks these days, Topic A isn't religion, it's the embarrassing Olympics scandal. (For Utah Jazz fans, the retirement of Michael Jordan runs a close second.)

But school officials, by the nature of their work, must look beyond the events of the moment. For them, the upcoming Olympics is another, significant step toward greater religious and ethnic diversity in their once-homogeneous state. Already Salt Lake City is home to a large Hispanic population. The current mayor is a Jewish woman. And Buddhists from Southeast Asia live in rural Utah.

That's why school leaders are looking to the Utah 3Rs Project — a program supported by the First Amendment Center — to help their districts find common ground on religion and values. Based on the guiding principles of “rights, responsibilities and respect” that flow from the First Amendment, the 3Rs Project gives schools a civic framework for addressing religious and ethnic diversity.

Now in its second year, the project helps school leaders do two things: develop and implement policies that protect the religious-liberty rights of all students, and prepare teachers to teach about religion in ways that are constitutional and educational.

This past week, we took the project to seven school districts. Many of the toughest issues we discussed dealt with old traditions now being challenged by the new pluralism. For example, teachers in some of the districts we visited still arrange for the school chorus to sing in local worship services — a long-standing practice dear to the hearts of the majority of residents. Sometimes these performances include religious testimonies from students.

But all this makes students from minority faiths and those with no religious preference uncomfortable, to say the least. Under the First Amendment, public schools shouldn't assign students to participate in religious activities. And it's not enough to excuse students who object. The school chorus isn't the church choir.

The solution that's working in some districts is to end this practice and replace it with voluntary performances arranged entirely by students or by adults who aren't school officials. That way, members of the chorus who want to sing at religious services may do so, but such performances aren't school-sponsored activities and school officials aren't involved.

Moreover, the fact that the school chorus can't perform officially during religious services does not mean that it can't sing in religious buildings. As long as the performance is not part of a worship service and is open to the general public, the chorus may perform in churches and other such places in the community.

Questions such as this will only multiply as religious diversity changes the face of Utah's classrooms. Drawn by breathtaking natural beauty and a robust economy, people of all faiths and none are coming to Utah. The public schools — if they take the First Amendment seriously — will be ready.

For more information about the 3Rs Projects in Utah, California and other states, contact Marcia Beauchamp of the First Amendment Center at 415/547-4112.