United States Commission on Civil Rights
Dear Madame Chairpersons and Distinguished Members of the Commission,
Five years ago I was pastoring a growing, evangelical congregation in Central California. Today, I travel throughout the United States helping school districts and religious parent groups build bridges of cooperation through some of the most divisive issues of our day.
Why did I make that change? The reasons are best exposed in comments made to me by a teacher from Northern Ireland who was in Massachusetts on a teacher-exchange program. After sitting through the first part of a workshop I conducted, she said to me: “I appreciate what you’re trying to do here. But it will not work. You’ll end up killing each other over these things, just like we’re doing.”
Given her circumstances, I understand her despair. Hopefully current events in Ireland will yet lead them to peace. But the reason I got involved doing the work I do now is to prove people like her wrong. I don’t agree that religious tensions must end in anger or bloodshed. We do have the necessary court decisions and broad-based consensus to tackle the most difficult issues in our society with compassion and mutual respect.
Thus I founded BridgeBuilders four years ago to help school districts and parent groups understand the current tension of the so-called “culture wars” and to build relationships of mutual respect across philosophical differences. We have helped fractured communities heal and others avoid conflict and misinformation by taking a pro-active approach.
We also help faith communities understand the religious liberty issues inherent in the public school environment. They need to know that applying the Bill of Rights to all people in our culture is not a national repudiation of God, but simply a valuable limitation on the role of government. The state isn’t going to broker the religious faith of its citizenry.
Two years ago I arrived in a school district in Southern Arizona that was deeply divided over the implementation of an HIV/AIDS curriculum. Accusations had been traded in the local paper for the eight months before I arrived. When I first met with the parents, they took great pains to indicate that their concerns were not derived from their religious faith. They thought I had been invited to their district to identify their concerns as religious-based and under the doctrine of church and state exclude them from the dialogue.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. I was there to help identify their concerns and see if the district could build an HIV/AIDS curriculum that could be endorsed by the wider community. In three days together they were able to write a framework that had the support of the entire faith community as well as medical doctors, educators and other community agencies.
Here, as in most places I go, the conflict resulted from people’s mistaken perceptions about the agenda of the opposing side and a lack of knowledge about religious neutrality in the public schools. While our society has undergone a critical transition in the last 35 years, it is sorely misunderstood by most people in our society.
Religious pluralism did not emerge from public debate and legislative action, but by lawsuit and court decision. Though I am convinced it provides a fair platform for our diverse society to gather, no one has helped the community understand or appreciate religious neutrality in public education. In other words, while the case has been made in the courts, it has not been made in the living rooms or school houses of America.
To a significant degree this misunderstanding is fostered by the suspicion and mistrust inculcated by advocacy groups on both sides of the religion and society debate. To illustrate, during a period of two days last November I had the opportunity to address the Healthy Schools, Healthy People Conference in Sacramento, CA and a regional convention of the Christian Coalition. At the first, I heard one keynote speaker say: “Anyone who opposes condom distribution to high school students is unthinking, uncaring and demagogic.”
A day later at the Christian Coalition Conference I heard the following, “We know that sex education in our schools is not designed to reduce sexual activity but to encourage it!”
I don’t find either of those statements to be true of the vast majority of people I’ve worked with on both sides of this issue, but both were acknowledged with vigorous applause from their respective audiences.
Highly visible, well-funded advocacy groups on the right and the left attempt to raise funds by raising fears and have more to gain by intensifying the conflict rather than bridging the peace. Except for the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, I am aware of no other group seeking to inform the public without a personal agenda that often distorts the facts and vilifies the opposition.
Thus in our patchwork of locally-controlled school districts, abuses and misunderstanding abound. The misapplication of the doctrine of the separation of church and state has led in many cases to an environment that is hostile to the values of religious parents and to conflicts that destroy the fabric of entire communities.
While we all gain from separating the institutions of church and state, we cannot and should not attempt to divide someone’s faith, or their lack of it, from their participation in the culture. Though public education cannot promote religious faith, it certainly cannot denigrate it either.
If public education is going to survive into the next millennium it is going to have to take seriously the role of parents in the rearing of their children and recognize that if the schools cannot be used to indoctrinate students into religious faith, it must not also be used as a tool of social engineering in defiance of the values parents seek to instill in their children.
Let me close with a question posed to me by a science teacher in Long Beach, “Personally, I am an atheist, but is there a way for me to teach science faithfully and not destroy the religious faith of students in my classroom?”
The answer to his question is a resounding yes. The fact that he asks it is one of the best demonstrations of the kind of respect that must be rebuilt into the national dialogue if we’re going to learn to live together beyond our deepest differences.
After all, isn’t that the highest ideal of living in a democracy?
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