The Common Good
March-April 1996

Neutral and Free

by Oliver Thomas | March-April 1996

Religion, values, and the public schools.

Despite the rhetoric of some preachers and politicians, there are hopeful signs that public schools finally may be beginning to get it right about religion. Once promoted, then ignored altogether, religion could at long last find its rightful place in public education.

What can Christians reasonably expect from their local schools when it comes to religion? In answering that question, two constitutional principles come into play. The first applies to the government (i.e. public schools); the second to students and parents.

The government's posture toward religion should be one of neutrality among religions and between religion and non-religion. This means Baptists are not favored over Catholics, nor Jews over Muslims. It also means believers are not valued over non-believers. The playing field is level for everybody. That's the key.

Neutrality does not mean ignoring religion or, worse, stripping it from textbooks, school concerts, and other parts of the curriculum. Nor does neutrality mean censoring religious viewpoints. Students should be allowed to express their views-religious or otherwise-in art projects, classroom discussion, and even in a valedictorian's speech. In a word, neutrality means fairness-letting the voices be heard. Parents have the right to expect schools to be fair, honest brokers, neither promoting nor discouraging religious faith.

Neutrality toward religion should not be confused with neutrality toward values or character development. Schools can and should promote strong moral values. And while they may not invoke religious authority, they should respect and affirm the role that religion plays in the development of moral character for most families.

Above all, teachers should not suggest to students that values are merely a matter of personal choice without reference to absolute truths. Schools must work in partnership with parents to ensure that we do not undermine what the child is being taught at home. It is parents, not schools, who have the primary constitutional authority to control the religious and educational upbringing of their children.

THE SECOND constitutional principle is the government's obligation to protect the rights of students to exercise their religion freely, even in a public school. Students are free to pray alone or in groups, to read their Bibles, and even to proselytize their classmates as long as they are not disruptive and do not harass or coerce others. Teachers and other school employees may not lead, direct, or participate in such student religious activities.

The recently enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires public schools to accommodate the religious needs of students unless there is a compelling reason-such as health and safety-not to do so. Even then, the school must try to accomplish its purpose without restricting one's religion if possible.

Those are our rights. Now, what about our responsibilities?

As peacemakers, we have a special responsibility to help divided communities find common ground. Often, this can occur when school officials are willing to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and commit themselves to finding ways to treat religion with fairness and respect. This may include teaching about religion in the curriculum, adopting strong programs of character education, implementing an equal access policy for student religious clubs, and working to protect the free speech and free exercise rights of students where possible.

At the same time, parents must admit that the vast majority of teachers and administrators are hard-working public servants who have their students' best interests at heart. Certainly, they are not trying to woo students away from their Christian faith. By listening to each other and working patiently together, we can move from battleground to common ground.

OLIVER THOMAS is a Southern Baptist minister and serves as special counsel to the National Council of Churches. He is co-author of Finding Common Ground (Vanderbilt University, 1995) and has worked with more than 300 school districts on issues pertaining to religion. A version of this editorial appears in the new Sojourners resource, Recovering the Evangel.

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