Neutral and Free

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.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1996
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