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One Nation Under God

Monday, July 1, 1996

          Even in the lazy days of summer, when most schools are as noisy as a mausoleum, classrooms are rattling with the ghosts of First Amendment debates left unresolved: A parent sues a Mississippi school district for allowing prayers over the school intercom. A California high school prevents students from distributing invitations to a Bible study group. A school principal in Virginia bars a student from reading her Bible on a school bus.

          Meanwhile, conservatives in Congress may soon unveil a religious-liberty amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as promised by House Speaker Newt Gingrich after the Republican victories in November 1994. One version of the bill, introduced by Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois, would not allow any government agency to "deny benefits or otherwise discriminate against any private person or group on account of religious expression." Supporters hope the bill's language will prevent educators from muzzling legitimate forms of religious speech--from class reports to lunchroom prayers.

         But Charles Haynes, an authority on religion and education issues, isn't sanguine about adding a postscript to James Madison's historic formula for church-state relations. Although he laments a widespread failure to take religion seriously in the classroom, Haynes says a constitutional amendment isn't needed to protect religious expression. Despite some mistaken judicial rulings, he says, court interpretations of the First Amendment still permit private religious speech by students as well as classroom instruction about religion. "Let's try the Amendment we have before we add another one," he says. "I would argue that we still really haven't tried to make the First Amendment work."

         Making the Amendment "work" first means educating parents and teachers about the forms of religious expression still permissible under state and federal court rulings. Haynes, a scholar at Vanderbilt University, collaborates with Oliver Thomas, an expert on church-state law who has taught at Georgetown University Law Center. Both played a role in getting religious and civil-liberties groups last year to sign a Joint Statement of Current Law, outlining wide freedoms for student-initiated speech (see sidebar, page 21).

         But just because religious expression is legal does not mean it is uncontroversial. Working district by district, Haynes and Thomas are bringing together educators, parents, and community leaders of different faiths to agree on three basic rules for setting policies on religion in schools: (1) Schools must protect the religious freedoms of students of all faiths, even those of no faith; (2) parents have primary responsibility for the education of their children; and (3) public debate must always be conducted with respect and civility.

         School districts around the nation are signing up. Called the "Three Rs Project" (for "rights," "responsibilities," and "respect"), the program has been introduced in all of California's 58 counties. It has been endorsed by groups as diverse as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Christian Educators Association International, and the California Teachers Association. And a growing number of states--including Georgia, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah--are moving ahead with the initiative as even their most homogenous school districts absorb rising numbers of ethnic and religious minorities.

         The lesson is that pluralism need not hush all religious voices in public schools. Haynes insists that the First Amendment is animated by a respect for individual conscience, and that it implies a set of civic principles for affirming religion in the public square--in all its diversity. "If it's done right, the First Amendment will make the schools, for the first time in our history, places where deeply religious people will feel confident in sending their children to be educated," Haynes says. "But getting it right is going to take a great deal of work."

Diversity Central

          That's painfully true in California, eventual home to roughly 25 percent of all who immigrate to the United States each year. The state draws large numbers of racial and religious minorities; the student body in some districts comprises up to 90 different native languages--and almost as many ways to talk about faith in the classroom.

         Church-state disputes came to a boil in 1990, when the state prodded public schools to adopt a social-studies curriculum that teaches the central role of religion in U.S. and world history. Most schools weren't ready: Teachers typically received little or no training in world religions or in raising religious issues in class. During public hearings on proposed textbooks, police were actually called out to restore order.

         Haynes and Thomas met with school officials and community leaders throughout California. Their modus operandi: Encourage local school boards to approve the Three Rs Project, organize teams of parents and educators to attend seminars on the First Amendment, send teachers to curriculum workshops, and then build community support. If all of that sounds like an old-fashioned civics lesson, it is--and it seems to be working.

         In the Snowline School District in southern California a few years ago, the stage was set for another contentious church-state drama: A teacher prevented a third-grade student from writing a report on Jonah and the whale; a school-board member donated books espousing creationism to the school library, but officials were unsure whether the school was allowed to use them; a high-school student group wanted to start every meeting with prayer, but a parent objected.

         The community, however, was ready. Snowline had recently adopted the Three Rs Project to accommodate the religious-liberty rights of an increasingly diverse school system of 6,000 students. The district peacefully reached agreements on each flash point: The Jonah report was approved, books on creationism now sit on library shelves, and the student group agreed to begin meetings with a moment of silence, not prayer.

         "It's very clear that the student expression of religious values is almost never inhibited by the First Amendment," says Jan Vondra, assistant superintendent of curricula and education services at Snowline. "As long as their expressions are not disruptive, student freedoms are very, very broad."

         That's a deceptively simple manifesto: Bewilderment, misconceptions, and fear of religion still grip many school districts. The church-state questions at Snowline, for example, all involved acts considered defensible under federal court rulings--and yet incidents like them tend to provoke bitter lawsuits or muffle legitimate expressions of faith. "Most teachers are extremely wary of allowing any religious expression in their classroom because they are afraid they may be breaking the law," says Jennifer Norton, a high-school teacher in Jackson, California, who has trained more than 250 teachers in the Three Rs program.

New York State of Mind

          To creche or not to creche, as the school's superintendent puts it--that was the question that sent tremors through the South Orangetown District in Rockland, New York, several years ago. The school followed a now-familiar script: The topic of Christmas and Hanukkah decorations in district classrooms provoked heated public discussions. Unable to reach compromise, school officials banned the display of any religious symbols. "We were trying to teach tolerance, but many people felt we were teaching people to be afraid of asking questions," says Phoebe Rosenwasser, a PTA co-president and the parent of four children attending public schools in the district.

         To ease tensions, newly arrived school superintendent Mort Sherman helped form a "We the People" committee modeled on the Three Rs program. After several community meetings, the school board last fall approved a policy instructing district schools to teach about religion at virtually all grade levels. "The proper role of religion in the public schools is in its educational value and not in religious observance nor in religious celebration," the policy states. The committee is now placing curriculum development among the district's top priorities.

         "You won't walk into our classrooms and see Christmas trees or creches or menorahs," Sherman says. "But you can walk into our classrooms and hear discussions about what Christmas means. . . . It's part of the formal curriculum." Says Rosenwasser, "It's done a marvelous job of bringing us together."

         Haynes dared to imagine such results nearly a decade ago, when he joined the Williamsburg Charter project to commemorate the bicentennial of the First Amendment. That effort, led by social thinker Os Guinness, brought together a national cast of politicians, educators, and religious leaders to publicly agree on the Amendment's intended role in American life: to nurture religion.

         The charter, though successful as a public compact, lacked the practical tools to affect local policy. Haynes and Thomas produced a handbook for teachers and administrators called Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education. A comprehensive look at legal and practical questions about the relationship between church and state, it forms the basis of the Three Rs program.

         Haynes agrees with conservatives and others who see widespread secularism in the nation's classrooms as inherently dangerous to democracy. Sociologist Peter Berger writes that one of the hallmarks of totalitarianism is the urge to drive underground man's quest for God--to impose everywhere "a world without windows." Haynes fears that such is the world being created behind many schoolhouse doors.

         But he also seems eager to remind audiences of the perils of majoritarian religion. He takes issue with some conservative Christians who recall 19th- or early 20th-century America as a golden era of religious influence in public schools. In fact, Protestants and Catholics argued over which version of the Bible to read and what prayers to say, while Jews and other religious minorities were deeply uncomfortable with the Protestant overtones of their children's instruction.

         "Religious consensus in the United States is not possible, and any attempt to impose one in public education would be unjust and unconstitutional," Haynes says. "People who look back to the good old days should remember that there were no good old days in public schools. We were very bitterly divided."

Unlikely Allies

         Given the groups contending for and against a religious-liberty amendment in Congress, the Three Rs Project continues to attract a peculiar coalition of supporters. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, calls the initiative "indispensable." In December, when Haynes released A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, he got the backing of Education Secretary Richard Riley and Joan Dykstra, the president of the National PTA. "The freedom of religion is one of the most important guarantees in our Constitution," Dykstra says, "and continues to be the basis of our nation's strength." Dykstra intends to have 30,000 copies of the guide distributed to PTA presidents nationwide.

         In a memorandum last year, President Clinton directed the U.S. Department of Education to send guidelines explaining students' religious rights to each of the nation's 14,800 districts. "Nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones," Clinton wrote in the memorandum. The guidelines, which borrowed heavily from last year's Joint Statement of Current Law, seem to be diffusing some suspicion about the Three Rs project. Some groups, however, remain skeptical. Elliot Mincberg, of the liberal group People for the American Way, says he endorses the educational goals of the project but fears that conservatives will use it to further a political agenda--and so remains judicially vigilant. "It's got to be bilateral disarmament,." he says. "I can't disarm as long as they don't."

         Steven McFarland, the director of the Christian Legal Society, doubts that a civic-education project can undo a string of judicial rulings hostile to religion. The Rutherford Institute similarly faults the Clinton directive and the 1995 Joint Statement for ignoring unfavorable court decisions. In DeNooyer v. Livonia Public Schools, for example, a federal court allowed a school to single out a student's religious speech for disparate treatment. "Only an amendment can head off decades of additional discrimination and costly lawsuits," McFarland recently told Christianity Today.

         Haynes, Thomas, and scores of educators and parents are betting against such a forecast. They're convinced that changes in public attitudes about religion must come from the bottom up--one school district at a time. They consider the breakdown in trust in public education as a threat to civil society; such trust, they argue, cannot be restored until schools break their silence about the historic role of faith in American culture.

         "We can take religion seriously in public education while protecting the conscience of every parent and student," Haynes says. "But we cannot go forward as a country if we try to keep religion out of the schools. . . . There is simply no choice but to try to get this right."