by Charles Haynes
Pulpit Helps presents this article as essential information. The editors feel-with Mr. Haynes, though perhaps with not quite the same reasons-that the action taken last year has potential for both good and bad in religious education. The opportunity can be compared to a blank paper, waiting to be written on. It is up to those who care to take advantage of the opportunity offered for good. Charles Haynes is senior scholar/religious freedom programs with the First Amendment Center's office in Arlington, VA. He invites queries and comments-see the end of the article.
The first year of the new century was a banner year for advocates of religious liberty in public education. Why? Because after more than 150 years of debate and conflict, a national consensus on the constitutional role of religion in schools is finally reaching local districts across the nation.
The year 2000 began with the U.S. Department of Education's extraordinary mailing of religious liberty guidelines to every public school in America. And the year closed with the news that all national and state standards now mandate teaching about religions in social studies classrooms.
With all of the hand-wringing about a "divided America" in the aftermath of the election, it's heartening to note that most religious and educational groups, from left to right, endorse these developments.
Despite this emerging consensus, however, the task of translating guidelines and standards into lasting change in local schools remains formidable. Three of the biggest challenges :.
Creating local policies: It's good news that all principals received religious liberty guidelines in January of 2000. But here's the bad news: many, if not most, didn't bother to read them.
That's why a teacher in Texas refused to allow a child to write an essay about Jesus, even though all the other students were allowed to write about their favorite hero in history. Districts without legal policies and guidelines make bad decisions and provoke ugly lawsuits.
By contrast, the Richardson, Texas, school district put in place sound, constitutional policies developed by citizens representing a broad cross-section of the local community.
Preparing teachers: It's also good news that state social studies standards call for at least some teaching about religion. But here again, there's bad news: many teachers don't feel ready to tackle serious discussion of the world's major faiths.
Only California and Utah have statewide projects focused on helping teachers teach about various religions in ways that are both constitutional and educational. It's unfair and counterproductive to ask teachers to do something as challenging as teach about religion without providing them the professional support they need to do it right.
Ending the Bible wars: Finally, it's very good news that we now have consensus guidelines to tell public schools what a constitutional elective in study about the Bible should look like. The bad news is that some school districts ignore this advice and try to set up Bible courses that are unconstitutional. Recent fights in Memphis, Dallas and San Jose demonstrate how volatile this issue remains nationwide.
It would help if every district contemplating a Bible course would follow the lead of the Baldwin County, Alabama, schools. School leaders there are taking time to find good resources for teaching about the Bible in a way that's fair and accurate, and they are offering a summer institute to prepare teachers who will participate in next year's pilot program.
Most educators, like most other Americans, agree that kids have religious liberty rights that should be protected. And most agree that academic study of religion should be included in the curriculum.
This is the year for public schools to turn this agreement into reality by meeting the challenges of policy development and teacher preparation within the guiding principles of the First Amendment.
Haynes is senior scholar/religious freedom programs with the First Amendment Center's office in Arlington, VA. Your questions and comments are welcome. Write to Charles Haynes at the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, TN. 37212. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.