Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

On Finding Common Ground with Religious Conservatives: A Conversation with Charles Haynes

    Religion does have a role in public schools, says Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum. Through their policies and practices, schools must protect the religious liberty rights of students as well as treat religion fairly in the curriculum.

      In the last several years, you've moderated a number of discussions between conservative Christians and public educators. Why are so many traditionalist parents opposed to school programs and suspicious of educators?
      Their alienation is rooted in a long history of distrust. We've moved away from a time when U.S. public schools were predominantly Protestant to recent decades when there's been silence about religion. Many conservative Christian parents perceive this silence as hostility. They feel alienated from the public schools because they don't see their viewpoints represented in the curriculum; they don't see their values reflected in the school culture.
      Some educators see parent complaints as part of a conspiracy to undermine public confidence in the public schools. And, of course, parents and community members accuse educators of being part of a liberal New Age conspiracy. Do either of these groups have a point?
      I don't think there's a conspiracy on either side. But educators often speak in ways that aren't readily understood by many parents and citizens. In recent decades educators have sometimes presumed they knew best. Some of the changes in public education have not fully included parents and citizens in the discussion, and that has produced distrust on all sides. When there's such a high level of distrust, anything the schools do, or anything that critics of the schools do, can be seen as a kind of conspiracy.
      School people are troubled because they often find themselves dealing not with individuals but with groups—some of whom seem to have a broader agenda than just education.
      It's true that people have organized on all sides to promote their point of view. But I don't think that constitutes a conspiracy; that's just how democracy works: people organize to make sure their ideas are taken seriously and to structure society and the schools in a way that reflects their values.
      Sometimes parents are influenced by large, powerful groups who use their radio and television broadcasts, newsletters and books, to criticize what the schools are trying to do. What can be done about that?
      The first step for educators is to recognize that mistakes have been made in public schools. The way some schools approached values education, for example, led to a tremendous backlash against character education. The values clarification movement was deeply misunderstood and, in some ways, wrongheaded, and we're living with the result.
      So the first step—rather than overreacting to what some see as exaggerated attacks—is to listen to what critics are saying, to find those things that have some validity, and respond to them as fairly and evenhandedly as possible.
      Much of your work deals with issues involving religion in public schools. Some people would say that religion really has no place in the public schools. Schools are secular institutions, they say, and should be; especially in the United States, where the Constitution provides for separation of church and state.
      There's a lot of confusion about the word secular. It doesn't mean "nonreligious" or "antireligious," although some people use it that way. If that's the intended meaning, it would be better to describe public schools as civil rather than secular. The First Amendment may separate church from state, but it doesn't separate religion from public life, including public schools.
      Religion has a role in public schools—but the key is to get it right. Unfortunately, the two models we have in our history—the early model of Protestant dominance and the more recent model of avoiding religion as much as possible—are both wrong.
      Let's talk about what it might look like if we got it right. First, in brief, what are the legal principles that govern religion and public education?
      Fortunately we now have broad agreement from right to left on the proper role of religion in the public schools. We all agree that, under the First Amendment, public schools may neither inculcate nor inhibit religion. That is the basic framework within which we all work. Schools must be neutral—but neutrality means fairness. And when that translates into policies and programs, it means two important things. It means that the religious liberty rights of students must be protected by the policies and practices of the school. It also means that religion must be treated fairly in the curriculum. Actively promoting student freedom of conscience and recognizing religion, where appropriate, in the curriculum creates a school culture in which no one imposes religious beliefs or practices on others but religion is properly represented.
      Sounds pretty straightforward. Of course, some of the particulars can be confusing.
      Right. But the way to begin is to ask what's the right thing to do. And the right thing to do is to make sure religion is taken seriously in the curriculum. That means, among other things, preparing teachers to teach about religion at appropriate points throughout the curriculum. It's not enough to say that religion should be there—almost everyone agrees that you can't teach history without teaching about religion—but schools have to go on and say, "How can we help teachers treat religion fully and properly when it does come up?"
      Another way we need to go beyond legal minimums is to make sure that our policies protect students' rights—the right to pray, for example, alone or in groups, as long as the prayer is not disruptive of the educational process or coercive to other people. That's a positive and proactive way of saying, "Yes, kids do have the right to pray. Let's get beyond this phony debate over school prayer."
      We can make sure that kids and their parents know that kids can share their faith with other people, and that they can discuss things in class from a religious perspective, as long as it's done in a way that's appropriate to the discussion and does not coerce or harass other people—which is the same guideline we would use about any other student behavior. We can make it clear that kids can distribute religious literature in school. That's appropriate under the law as long as the school can place reasonable time, place, and matter restrictions on the activity. In secondary schools, we can make sure that kids understand they have the right to form religious clubs—if the school allows other clubs that are not related to the curriculum.
      In all these ways, we're opening the school up to religion and religious conviction, but we're doing it in a way that protects the conscience of every parent and student—believer and non-believer.
      Most of the things you've mentioned are in fact covered by law—although I suppose there's a subtle difference between grudgingly adhering to the law, as in providing access when a student prayer group demands it, and actively promoting individual freedom of conscience. But isn't there a danger that if schools encourage student religious expression, it will lead to more of the kind of school-sponsored religious activity that the courts have prohibited?
      I think the opposite will happen. The violations of conscience on all sides come when we're afraid to open the school to all perspectives and to protect the rights of all people. When we try to keep religion out, people react by trying to promote religion through the state, through the teacher, through the school board. And then other people, because they are afraid of religious indoctrination in schools, try inappropriately to keep kids from expressing their faith.
      To get this vision in place in public schools is not going to be easy; it's going to be a lot of work—because, as I've said, we have only two models in our history, both of which are wrong. If we really mean that public schools belong to all our citizens, we'll have to have a new vision for how people's faith and their values are treated. America is a place where there are people of almost every faith the world has ever seen, and there are people who have no religious affiliation at all. And somehow we have to live together with these differences and build a nation—one nation—out of them. If it's to be done at all, it must be done in the public schools.
      There are great risks in opening schools up under the First Amendment; the First Amendment is itself a risk. But the greater risk is not to do it.
      You're a staff member of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. What is Freedom Forum, and what does the First Amendment Center do?
      The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center is a nonpartisan educational foundation that helps Americans understand the First Amendment and apply its principles in their daily lives. We don't take sides on particular public policy issues, but instead try to promote the civic framework, as American citizens, that the First Amendment gives us. It's a framework that allows us to live with, and negotiate, our deepest differences with civility and respect.
      And the Center is sponsored by Freedom Forum?
      Yes, our parent organization, Freedom Forum, is an endowed international foundation dedicated to free press, free speech, and freedom of religion for all people.
      One of the things you do at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center is conduct a process you call "Common Ground." How does it work?
      We believe the First Amendment religious liberty clauses provide a framework for developing policy in public schools and indeed in the larger society: a framework that permits people of very different world views to find agreement and to work together as citizens. When we meet with groups of parents, citizens, and educators, we ask them to agree to the civic ground rules that bind us together as a people. These ground rules, derived directly from the First Amendment, involve a commitment to freedom of conscience for every individual, but also a commitment by each citizen to protect the rights of others, even those they disagree with. When these ground rules are in place, we help communities find common ground on issues on which they are deeply divided.
      As you know, some of the issues that lead to conflict between parents and schools—and in some cases between parents and other parents—are very explosive. Are there really ways to reach agreement on these matters?
      In our experience, educators and citizens can resolve a good 90-95 percent of the religion-in-school issues. There will be some issues on which they will still disagree, but that's to be expected. There will always be winners and losers in public policy debates, because this is a democracy. But if people are treated fairly in the process, they're more likely to accept losing on some issues, particularly if they can win on other issues. It's important to make clear that we don't see the Common Ground process as compromising convictions. Our effort is to say "Where can we agree, and how can we shape public policy that reflects that agreement?"
      What about controversies that may involve strong opinions but that are not strictly religious—teaching of reading, outcome-based education, mixed-ability grouping, and so on?
      There are many issues on which we are deeply divided. But I'm convinced that the civic framework we've been talking about is crucial to helping people negotiate these differences.
      Once we understand how to work together as citizens, we can find ways to accommodate one another without feeling we have undermined the educational process or violated the consciences of our citizens. On the seemingly most intractable issues, there are ways to recognize and respond to parents' concerns. On creationism, for example, it might be to provide for thoughtful consideration of different perspectives on human origins in the social studies curriculum or to rethink how the science curriculum can include more on the history and philosophy of science, so there are more voices in the discussion.
      There are ways to be open and democratic in curriculum planning that will satisfy most people, even if not all of them. The good news is that the American experiment in religious liberty actually works.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

      Learn More

      ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

      Let us help you put your vision into action.
      From our issue
      Product cover image 196008.jpg
      Working Constructively with Families
      Go To Publication