Resolving Religious Conflict

A Guide for School Administrators

By Wayne Jacobsen

It started out simply enough. A mother asked to have an alternative reading book for her sixth-grade daughter because she found some material in it to be objectionable to her religious beliefs. The teacher refused, informing Cathy’s mom (not her real name) that it was part of the core literature and was mandatory reading.

Cathy’s mom appealed to the administrators, and their response was the same. Unable to convince them of the depth of her concerns she took the only course her religious faith allowed and refused to let her child read the book while she appealed to the school board.

After a lengthy process the school board denied her request. As a result her daughter, an otherwise model student, received an ‘F’ in the assignment. Worse yet, the discord between the “liberal” school district and the “victimized” Christian families grows daily and has spread to just about every element of the school’s curriculum and policies.

I sat in on a recent meeting of these parents. Seventy-five parents met in the library to hear a conservative attorney appeal to their fears by telling them the worst mistakes school districts have made in dealing with religious concerns. His message was clear: school districts are evil and need to be sued to bring them back in line, which of course his conservative legal group would do at no charge.

Earlier in the day I had met with an administrator from the school district. Her regret at how this circumstance had developed was only matched by her inability to find a way to work out a mutually satisfactory solution. The district had even considered changing the entire sixth grade literature component so that out of ten core books, each student would read only five. When I asked her why they were willing to make a systemic change when a simple exception could have sufficed she responded, “We couldn’t do it for everyone.”

In my work with school districts to help them navigate the treacherous waters where religious tensions impact public education I find too many school districts ill-prepared to even understand these concerns, much less deal with them in a way that can enhance the district’s mission and build a greater community support base. These concerns don’t have to destroy a community if some simple precautions are taken:

1. Wake up! There Is A Problem Out There

During late spring in our part of the country, the rains stop and the brush on the hillsides turns tinder-dry. High fire danger means everyone has to take extra care with anything that might start a fire and extra effort to clear away brush from dwellings.

Anyone who doesn’t understand the level of distrust that many religious conservatives feel for public education isn’t paying attention. As our society has shifted from a tacitly ‘Christian society’ over the last 30 years to a more pluralistic one, no one has paid a greater price for that transition than conservative Christians.

The Christian rituals that were so much a part of our rites of passage have vanished. Christmas programs became winter festivals, baccalaureate services ended, and clergy prayers at graduation were rejected by the courts. At the same time school literature reflected a greater use of eastern and native American religions, morality was traded for values clarification and sex education exposed students to information that openly conflicted with the values of some parents. Meanwhile, the world became a scarier place as teen-age violence, drug use and promiscuity surged. National SAT scores also declined during this time period and many teacher unions became increasingly identified with liberalism in social policy.

Even though these trends may have no connection to the decline of Christian influence, it is easy to see why many conservative religious parents fear that public education is so tainted by liberal ideologies that it specifically attempts to undermine the religious faith of the family. Though I have yet to meet the educator who holds that agenda, that perception is a major factor in the fears of religious parents. Compounding the problem is a huge collection of literature, fundraising letters, and conservative speakers who appeal to these fears as a way to advance their political agenda. Their vested interest is served by promoting dissatisfaction with public education.

This has all made for a hostile climate. Our communities are tinder-dry with suspicion, fears and a loss of trust. The smallest misunderstanding can blow up into a community crisis in a matter of days, and you can rest assured the media will help that happen.

I doubt there is a community in America that isn’t a misunderstanding or two away from a major religious conflict that can divide the entire community. This is not to say that the problems are insurmountable, but to begin to fix them we have to first of all understand why they exist. Then we can take the necessary steps to resolve them.

2. Throw Out The Term ‘Religious Right’

The term ‘religious right’ has mutated into a pejorative term. It is not used to identify a specific segment of the population and address its concerns, but to discredit them as extremists who demand that public education be a de facto Christian education. Convinced that this is their agenda, educators can easily ignore, deceive or work around these parents confident that what they want violates the Constitution.

These caricatures mask the real problem and only exacerbates the conflict they pretend to resolve. It only leads to greater disrespect when a greater dose of mutual respect is sorely needed. The vast majority of religious parents are not seeking a public school district that endorses their faith, but one that does not make overt attempts to undermine it.

It is my contention that these parents are often some of the most conscientious in the school district, not only encouraging their children at home to be better students, but also volunteering their time and resource at the school site itself. They are concerned because a pantheon of literature has convinced them that the public school district has become an unsafe place for their children. If some of their concerns are legitimate, address them. If not, help educate the parents so their fear can be disarmed.

In my dealings with school districts struggling with religious issues, I have found that eighty percent of this debate is driven by misconceptions and both sides hold them of the other. Name calling only drives the conflict deeper.

3. Be Informed On Religious-Neutrality Issues

The transition of our culture from tacitly Christian to pluralistic has been arduous at best. No legislature sought the change. It was mandated by individual court decisions often at odds with the preferences of the majority. The perception by many is that the role of religion in our society is ambiguous, and is best ignored. Separation of church and state, some cry, is reason to exclude religious issues from public debate.

Fearing repercussions some school districts tried to eliminate religious references entirely, forbidding students to pray together outside of class time or to use religious themes for speeches or term papers. Such actions reject religious neutrality by seeking to promote a “religion of secularism” where those who believe in no religion are preferred over those who do. That may not have been anyone’s intent, but it has been the effect.

Do not be afraid to explore, educate and embrace religious neutrality. Groups like The Freedom Forum at Vanderbilt University have helped bring together as diverse a constituency as Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice and Christian Coalition on the one hand, and the ACLU and People for the American Way on the other to hammer out clarity regarding religious issues in public education. Their 3R’s curriculum is a wonderful tool to bring clarity here.

Many educators I have met with, however, are still woefully uninformed about this literature, or lack the knowledge to use it to rebuild the public trust where it is so desperately needed. Every school district should take an honest look at the message it sends to religious parents, making sure that it upholds religious neutrality in an environment of mutual respect.

Religious neutrality properly applied will help create a public educational environment that is safe for all children whether or not they come from religious homes. No school board or administrative team should be without training in this area, both on what can and cannot be done with religious expression and in how to disarm the fears of those who regard public education as hostile to their faith.

4. View Religious Issues As Parents’ Rights Issues

Many concerns expressed by religious conservatives are not religious at all. One underlying fear they have is that educators have usurped the role of parents, deciding what attitudes and philosophies students should hold, even if it differs from the religious faith of the family. Religious neutrality also implies political neutrality or else the school will become the pawn of whatever political power is in vogue. It will then rightly be perceived as a place of indoctrination not education.

For example, though not all religious groups agree historic Christianity embraced by religious conservatives views homosexuality as immoral. If the school district accepts the mandate to teach children otherwise it sets itself up as hostile to the faith of many families and defies the heart of religious neutrality. Since many conservative parents believe that educational groups and unions regularly side with liberal social causes, it’s easy to see why they will be cautious to trust the school district to help their children deal with sensitive issues like this one.

Respect for the family as the basic institution of society will cause us to find common ground and a way to express our differences that is not destructive. That can be easily expressed through a statement such as: “Many social scientists believe the homosexual lifestyle to be a normal alternative, though many religious groups disagree. This is an important topic to talk out with your parents, your church if you have one, and other significant adults in your life.” Then the school can address how we treat people whose lifestyles differ from our own. Tolerance need not imply endorsement. I don’t ask the homosexual community to endorse my faith. Why should they demand that I endorse their lifestyle?

For too long educators have demonstrated a professional confidence that borders on arrogance. As trained professionals they often convey little regard for the concerns of parents, certain that they know what is best if everyone would leave them alone and let them do their job. The public schools that will be successful into the next century will be those who partner with parents, appreciating the respective roles that each play in our society, and look to support the family, not override it.

5. Establish A Process To Handle Religious Concerns

The story that began this article could easily have been resolved if the teacher would have respected the parent’s concerns enough to seek a win/win solution with the parent. That doesn’t have to place an undue burden on the school district. The burden for an alternative assignment could be placed back on the parent’s shoulders.

“What comparable book would you want them to read, and what kind of assignment could they do to make up for missing the class discussion?”

Often school districts first approach is to express some concern, but to hesitate hoping the parent will soon lose interest. More often than not, however, this approach will be viewed as stonewalling. In these times of low trust, districts should have very clear guidelines for parents who wish to opt out of certain assignments or classes, to challenge a book in the school library that may be inappropriate and to arbitrate disagreements between parent and teacher.

The point here is not to create an undue hardship on the school, but to seek creative solutions so that no student is imperiled by a public school agenda that seeks to undermine the family.

6. Equip Your Staff

With all the challenges facing public education today. I realize that religious rights issues shouldn’t be the front-burner topic in education. School reform, helping at-risk students, integrating new technology and a host of other concerns carry more interest and one would hope a greater priority.

But it is. The pot is now at the front of the stove, burning and boiling over trying to ruin the rest of the dinner. Every miscommunication, every hesitation, every mistake by even a well-intentioned staff member can come back to haunt you in a host of ways. A little pro-active effort now can help lower the temperature and move these issues to the back burner where they belong.

At the very least consider in-service training for administrators, site principals, and science, social study and health/family life teachers. They should understand these issues and how to address concerns when they arise.

Some argue that a one-shot workshop will not have enough impact to help here. Of course the objective is not just to give people more information, but to help them make appropriate changes in policy or curriculum and help them build the kind of relationships that can resolve future tensions cooperatively. Some districts find it important to also help educate parents in this area to help quell fears and open doors to effective communication about religious issues.

First contact in these situations often determines whether they are resolved swiftly in an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation or whether it blows up to angry protests at board meetings, single-issue board campaigns, or even lawsuits. These can damage the working environment in a community for years to come.

7. Build Bridges to Conservatives Not Walls

In the absence of meaningful relationships, symbols and stereotypes will prevail. On the one hand some conservative, religious parents feel it is a monolithic institution out to destroy their children and educators fear that these are parents are picking on minuscule things and that they will not be happy until the school district becomes a sterile environment. You’ll find the rhetoric will fit these misconceptions unless people in the community have contact with each other before the crisis surfaces.

When a religious conflict emerges those districts that fare well are those who have forged relationships with members of the conservative religious community and have liaisons there to help dispel the misinformation and build trust with those who are fomenting the conflict. When fearful parents have no one on the inside they trust to be honest with them, the conspiracy literature is so convincing that they won’t believe the people who are trying to disarm their fears.

Given the nature of these times, every district would be well-advised to intentionally build relationships with people in the conservative religious community, just as you would with all other constituencies in your district. How can that be done? Invite clergy members and parent volunteers to sit with administrators and teachers on appropriate committees. Forge a district policy regarding religious liberty with interested parents and clergyman that will not only give you sound guidelines to follow, but contacts with people who care about these issues. Superintendents can invite clergy periodically to solicit their advice about the public’s perception of the school district, and should consider attending local ministerial meetings at least yearly so as to be a recognizable face when the battle heats up.

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There has never been a time when clear communication regarding religious issues is more needed in public education. This not only involves understanding simple legalities, but to also understand the fears that underlie the current debate.

Six weeks ago at a chance meeting on vacation I spoke with a health educator in a distant district. As I explained BridgeBuilders as a peace-making tool for religious controversies in public education she responded confidently, “We’re not having any problems with that in our district.”

I was hopeful she was right, but I was afraid that just because she didn’t see any flames, her sense of security might be false. Regretfully, within a month a concern over AIDS education blew up. The board president in her district, unaware of our previous contact, called a few days ago soliciting my involvement in helping to limit and heal the crisis that threatened the cohesiveness of their community.

Conflicts are always easier to avoid than to resolve. The temperature of the debate can be lowered through a modest amount of pro-active effort to enhance mutual understanding and trust with a significant core of your community who have felt disaffected by the emerging pluralism of our society.

We can help our communities understand that this pluralism works for us all and holds as much value for the religious person as it does for the non religious. Through engendering an environment of mutual respect and true religious liberty, we can lower the danger of conflict and work together to sort our differences in a constructive fashion. The future of public education depends on it.

© Copyright 1996 by BridgeBuilders

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