Religious Expression and Public Schools

By Wayne Jacobsen

“(The First Amendment) does not convert our schools into religion-free zones… Religion has a proper place in private and a proper place in public because the public square belongs to all Americans.”

President Bill Clinton, July 12, 1995
To parents at students at James Madison, High School Vienna, Virginia

Though many political observers saw President Clinton’s speech only as an attempt to thwart conservative attempts to push through a constitutional school-prayer amendment, his words and his directive to the Secretary of Education to distribute national guidelines explaining the allowable forms of religious expression on campus, can be a real godsend.

Much of the tension between parents of religious conviction and the public schools stems from the rising perception that public schools are not religiously neutral. Instead many view them as hostile to religion with a specific agenda to undermine religious values. While I have seen little evidence of that agenda in the districts I’ve worked with, the perception persists nonetheless. One of the greatest challenges facing administrators in the next five years is to reach past the perception that public schools are anti-religious and send a clear message to religious parents that the public school is a safe place for their children.

To do that we have to understand where the perception comes from. Look at the transformation in public education in the last 32 years, since the Supreme Court banned organized school prayer. Prior to that many schools reflected the Christian influence that predominated much of society. Prayers were offered in class; Bibles were read; Scriptures were posted in class-rooms and history emphasized the contributions of the Pilgrims or the Catholic Church.

In the last 32 years, however, further court decisions served to confuse the line between public policy and religious expression. Most recently, invocations by clergy at graduation ceremonies have been halted. Look at the things that are taught now that seem to fly in the face of the values of religious parents—evolution, homosexual rights, contraceptives, values clarification (which is fortunately going the way of the Dodo bird!) and eastern meditation exercises. At the same time our schools have been increasingly bombarded with society’s ills gangs, drugs, disrespect, violence. It is not too difficult for some to unfairly draw the conclusion that the elimination of religious influence is responsible.

Their fear only worsens when stories are told of principals who threaten students not to participate in “See You At the Flag Pole” prayer gatherings, teachers who mock students who hold to a Creationist viewpoint, or where religious convictions are belittled as ancient superstitions of unthinking people. Admittedly these don’t happen often, but when they do, the damage they cause can spill over in to other school districts as they seem to support the theory that a conspiracy from Washington is out to remove religious influence from our society.

Here is where the president’s directive can be helpful. When you receive the guidelines from the Department of Education, make generous use of them throughout the district with staff and parents. Though I haven’t seen them yet, I am well aware that religious expression as is currently permitted under the law will both surprise religious parents (and some administrators) as well as set them at ease. A wide latitude of religious expression is permissible on campuses provided it is not established by the district, forced on anyone who doesn’t want it, or disrupts the process of education.

Most parents of religious conviction today are not looking for school districts that are pro-Christian. Rather they are looking for assurances that at least public education is not anti-Christian. What we can all seek is a genuinely religious-neutral environment. Here religion is not promoted, but neither is it demeaned. Evolution can be taught as science’s best answer to the question of origin, given the scientific method it labors under, but room can be made for students who may not embrace that as the only possibility or the only source of information.

Affirming appropriate religious activity at public schools will go a long way to communicate to religious parents that public schools are a safe place for their children. Each week my daughter gathers at her public high school with 150 students during the lunch hour in the chorus room for a time of worship and Bible study. The Fellowship of Christian Students has its own page in the year book, nominates a homecoming queen candidate and in every way participates as a club on campus.

I continually hear parents refer to that as proof enough that their high school is not out to destroy or demean religious values. Greater clarity regarding appropriate religious expression can only help us all.

© Copyright 1996 by BridgeBuilders

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