War puts U.S. religious freedom in perspective

Sunday, April 11, 1999

I give up. I just can't write a column about religion in schools this week, although my desk is piled high with issues that need to be addressed. My mind and heart keep turning to Kosovo.

Like most Americans, I'm haunted and outraged by the images of horrific suffering broadcast into our living rooms each day. Weeping children, dying men and women, burning villages — these are the terrible results of evil acts rooted in religious and ethnic hatred.

Kosovo's suffering holds many lessons for Americans, especially for those of us involved in religious conflicts.

To begin with, Kosovo puts our own problems in perspective. Next time your school district gets into a shouting match over prayer at the football game, a Christmas tree in the lobby or a religious club meeting at lunch, folks on all sides should take a deep breath and say: “Thank goodness that's all we have to fight about.”

Our “culture wars” over religious differences are significant and deeply felt, but they are in no way comparable to the “holy wars” that divide the Balkans. We have our lawsuits and angry debates, but we rarely kill one another over religion. Thanks largely to the First Amendment, we continue to be one nation of many faiths and cultures, using religious-liberty principles to find common ground.

Unfortunately, however, too many Americans are complacent about our religious differences, overconfident that somehow we'll continue to work things out even as we grow more diverse and divided in the 21st century. The people of the Balkans know better: Never take religious peace for granted.

That's why I wasn't surprised to get a call last week from a Balkan state —Slovenia — asking how we deal with religion in our public schools. Ironically, the call came just as the bombs began to fall in Kosovo.

(In case you're having trouble keeping track of all the Balkan states, Slovenia was once part of Yugoslavia and is now an independent republic working to build a democracy after decades under a repressive communist dictatorship.)

It seems that Slovenian educators understand what many American educators ignore: getting religion right in public schools is crucial for learning to live with deep differences in a democratic society.

The Slovenians asked: How do American schools deal with religion in the curriculum? Is the faith of teachers an issue? May teachers wear religious garb? Is religious education permitted in public schools?

Addressing these questions in any part of the Balkans isn't easy. For centuries, Slovenia, like Kosovo, has been at the crossroads of violent regional conflicts among Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims. In 1991, the same Slobodan Milosevic who is presently “cleansing” Kosovo tried unsuccessfully to force Slovenia to remain a part of Yugoslavia.

Given such a difficult history, the Roman Catholic majority in Slovenia might be tempted to impose its faith on the various minorities. But most Slovenians appear to have learned the lesson of history: True democracy and freedom are built on a full commitment to religious liberty for all. And the best place to develop that commitment is in the public schools.

We should be proud that the world's emerging democracies look to the United States for advice on how to handle religious differences. Despite the efforts of a few demagogues to divide us along religious or ethnic lines, America is living proof that people with deep religious differences can live and work together as citizens of one nation.

But our pride shouldn't blind us to the ongoing and urgent task of finding common ground in our public schools and in America's public square. Our great legacy of religious freedom under the First Amendment will not sustain itself. It must be re-affirmed and expanded in every generation.