Building Bridges to Religious Parents

By Wayne Jacobsen

She was not a close friend, but I had worked with her on a number of school committees in the past. I knew her to be an effective administrator, a wonderful person and a church attender. But none of that mattered tonight.

As she tried to explain her role grading the ill-fated California CLAS test, her remarks were rudely shouted down with mockery and her honesty repeatedly challenged. What was more shocking than how my friend was being treated, was the content of the audience doing it to her. These were deeply religious parents whose concern for education was well-known; parents you could count on to help their children with homework and volunteer for site committees or as room mothers.

The meeting had been billed as an opportunity for parents concerned about the new state assessment tool for public schools. Designed to go beyond simply testing students on facts they could recall, the CLAS test also sought to assess their reasoning process and ability to defend their answers. The test was almost immediately questioned as being too expensive and too subjective.

But the sharpest attacks came from the religious community. Rumors circulated that the literature readings advanced leftist political agendas. Furthermore, they saw the CLAS test as a psychological tool being used to evaluate and classify students based on whether or not their values lined up with the ‘liberal public school establishment.’ In their minds, this was another attempt by the state to undermine religious values.

The parents had not come to listen but demand that the school board go on record against the test or risk being sued. If the parents could have just listened, however, man of their fears would have been alleviated. A certified test-grader was telling them that students were not being tracked nor adversely graded for expressing religious values in their answers. Most didn’t listen. Those who did didn’t believe her. Even if she was telling the truth, they reasoned, she was only an unwitting pawn in a conspiracy to destroy their children.

Why So Much Fear?

Trust between public school educators and conservative religious parents is at an all-time low. The CLAS test in California only scratched a wound that has festered over the last 30 years, ever since the Supreme Court outlawed public prayer in our nation’s classrooms.

Since that time further court decisions and changes in curriculum have sent the message to religious parents that their children may not be safe in public school. In science classes creation was mocked as superstition in deference to evolution. In cultural values, absolutes in morality were discounted and students were told to decide for themselves between right and wrong. Eastern meditation and occult symbols increasingly appeared in reading assignments. Teachers told students how to use birth control and endorsed as normal lifestyles once thought aberrant .

Meanwhile books and articles in the Christian press have interpreted these trends as proof of a national conspiracy emanating from Washington that is designed to undermine the values and beliefs of religious families. They are afraid that their local school district, wittingly or unwittingly, has become an extension of that conspiracy. A fundraising letter written by Pat Robertson for the American Center for Law and Justice voices the depth of this concern:

“Today we see a deliberate, all-out effort to eradicate religious belief from every vestige of public life. This assault is furious and unrelenting so dangerous and intense that it can be considered nothing less than a deliberate attempt at religious cleansing in the American Republic.”

If the above paragraphs frustrate you as misrepresentations of what has happened in public education then you’ll be able not only to understand the fears motivating religious parents but you’ll also be in a place to do something about it.

While American society embraced pluralism in the public sector, making room at the table for a diversity of beliefs, it has largely done so at the expense of a cultural Christianity that was salted throughout many of our institutions since the founding of our nation. From their vantage point it is not unreasonable for religious parents to feel threatened and to see the public sector as hostile to their faith.

Combine those facts with the problems educators face today from broken families to greater gang, drug and sexual activity and you will also understand why they think that reasserting Christian influence in the public sector is good for society. By fighting to restore Christian influence they see themselves as helping.

The Pendulum Swing

For public education to find a working relationship with disenfranchised religious parents two things will need to happen:

First, administrators will need a sympathetic ear to the concerns of those parents. Not all their fears are unfounded. Stephen Carter, a Yale law professor, in his book The Culture of Disbelief, expresses well the fears of the religious parent: “From the point of view of religiously devout people whose consciences and visions of reality are influenced by faith, the public square can seem a cold, suspicious, and hostile place.”

One educator confessed to me that after a meeting to discuss religious concerns in the district a colleague was overheard to say, “I wish these Christian parents would leave us alone so we can do what we know is best for their children.” If you think that kind of disrespect can be hidden, think again. They are primed to expect the system not to respect their concerns.

Secondly, religious parents will need to come to grips with the public schools as the plural forum it has become. Whether or not this nation ever was a Christian nation; it is not now. Our government grants equal justice to all religions, so that no one can mandate its practice upon others.

While I share the theological foundation of Christian parents, I see many advantages even for Christianity in a true open-forum. Most Christians would embrace it as well, realizing that compelled religious behavior is incompatible with Christianity itself. The problem is the forum has not been so open, especially for Christians. Books on the religious rituals of Native Americans will hardly raise an eyebrow, while reading any portion of the Bible even as a work of literature is openly shunned.

Clearly the proverbial pendulum has swung too far. In moving away from a system that preferred Christianity, in many cases we have replaced it with a system that virtually excludes it. What we can all do is work together to build a genuine religious-neutral setting where no religion is preferred, nor any undermined.

Law and legal precedent already mandate just such a system. In one Supreme Court case regarding education, the majority wrote, “Of course, the state may not establish a ‘religion of secularism’ in the sense of affirmative opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus ‘preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.'” In a later opinion he added, “Nothing that we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the first amendment.”

Furthermore courts have affirmed the right of students to pray personally or in groups, when such prayers do not disrupt the educational process or compel others to participate. Student expressions of religious beliefs in reports or homework assignments can not be excluded when they meet the criteria of the assignment. Religion and its impact on history and society can be openly discussed. Students are allowed to have clubs for fellowship or study if other noncurricular clubs are so allowed.

A genuine, religion-neutral system is not a celebration of atheism or of nonreligion. It is a forum where religious issues can be discussed, appropriate expression allowed, and where students who hold religious values and those who don’t are not belittled.

Where to from here?

There are many ways that a school district can move toward a religious-neutral setting that will even engender the support of religious parents.

1. Respect the concerns of the religious parent. In most cases they are not the irrational ravings of people who want to turn the public schools into extensions of their faith. They are simply afraid that the district is working in opposition to that faith. Understand why they fear that faith is no longer welcome in the public forum, and then you can look for ways to affirm religious values while not violating the plurality of the forum.

You don’t have to affirm their religious views to support their right to hold them. Helping to build this kind of respect between educators and disillusioned parents is the single most important thing any district can do. If those who put together California’s CLAS test had been sensitive to those concerns they could have avoided the controversy that tore apart so many districts.

2. Communicate: “This is a safe place for children with religious values.” Policy statements can be helpful here, but more important are the actions of individual teachers and administrators. My daughter meets every Wednesday at lunch with 150 students in the high school choir room for prayer and Bible study. It is student-led and functions on campus like any other club. Its availability goes a long way to demonstrate that the school district is not threatened by religious faith but makes room for it.

In so many curricular areas, ranging from science to family-life, where the content of the text and even the opinions of the teacher may disagree with religious values, fairness is all that’s needed. “I know that everyone doesn’t see this the same way and for many religious faith is a factor in that. This would be a good area to discuss with your parents or church if you have one.” This simple statement can affirm those who hold such views without putting down those who don’t.

3. Allow appropriate religious expression. Every time a teacher stops a student for using a Bible text in a speech, or a principal discourages “See You at the Pole” or other student religious events, it demonstrates hostility to faith. Most religious parents would be excited to know the expressions of faith already allowed under the law, but many districts afraid of lawsuits overcompensate by excluding even the appropriate roles religion can play. In April of 1995 a joint statement of current law was assembled by religious and nonreligious legal organizations. Every administrator will find this statement an indispensable tool. (To get one, send $1.00 to American for Religious Liberty; P.O. Box 6656; Silver Spring, MD 20916)

4. Provide training for staff in these areas. In the seminars I conduct on building bridges to religious parents, I hear too many educators lament, “I’ve been in education for 30 years and have never before had the opportunity to participate in an intelligent discussion about these critical issues that underlie almost everything I do.”

If a science teacher cannot understand how an intelligent person can still believe in creation in the face of all the scientific evidence, he or she isn’t prepared to teach evolution. If a family-life teacher doesn’t understand the fears that contraceptive information may encourage some border-line students toward premature sexual activity, then they aren’t ready to teach family life. In both cases that knowledge may not affect their viewpoint or what they teach, but will affect how they do it and how they treat those whose views differ from their own.

5. Educate. If school districts do not provide opportunities for religious parents to understand the plurality of the forum who else will? Community forums and seminars on this topic can help stir constructive dialogue.

6. Invite the religious community to the table. Make an effort to build relationships with influential members of the religious community, just as you do the business community. Specifically include them in district committees and talk about religious issues openly. Where appropriate invite their resources to address school concerns. Churches can provide Christmas baskets for the needy or tutors for disadvantaged students. Two things will happen by doing this. First, religious views will get a hearing and become part of the process. Second, relationships are built that will go along way toward diffusing tensions. It is easier to complain from the sidelines than it is when you’re on the team.

Religious conflicts and fears don’t have to tear our schools apart. With a little pro-active effort, administrators can mitigate the fears and by doing so find a district better able to serve all its students and the families from which they come.

© Copyright 1996 by BridgeBuilders

Permission is hereby granted to anyone wishing to make copies for free distribution