Saturday, March 7, 2009

Religion in Public School, Emotion and Misunderstanding

Bob Smietana of The Tennessean writes that when it comes to religion in public school, emotion and misunderstanding generally prevail. Smietana interviewed lawyers and scholars from several church-state organizations, both conservative and progressive, and citing a couple contemporary cases, argues that our general misconceptions of the First Amendment lead to anger and frustration when we are confronted with a religion-in-school conflict:
"People tend to carry around two failed models in their head," [Senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, Charles] Haynes said. "Either we keep religion entirely out of public schools or we keep on doing what we used to do in the good old days and promote religion in school."

Because of those failed models, schools end up making poor decisions when it comes to religion.

Schools, however, can try to prevent any church-state issues by offering a clear set of guidelines beforehand to students and parents:

The most important thing that schools can do is to draft rules that address religious expression before there is a conflict, Haynes says.

If the rules are spelled out ahead of time, religious parents will know that their faith is respected. And nonreligious parents will know that their children's religious liberty is being safeguarded.
Hayes, in conclusion, offers a general principle schools should follow ... well, he just regurgitates common First Amendment wisdom, but very important nonetheless:
"Whatever a school does with parents or other religious groups — they have to make sure that it is not establishing or denigrating religion. To protect all students, they have to stay neutral in matters of faith."
But like many things in life, this is easier said than done. Striking that balance is, needless to say, pretty tough, seen especially in the ways we react to these cases.


Darren Staley said...

But isn't this argument really a straw man? Not teaching religion in class does not equal denigrating religion.

My reasoning for this is not anti-thiestic. The faithful should not want teachers who may disgree with their version of faith preaching to students either.

I would be against an athiest teacher talking about athiesm in class.

Kids can still legally read the Bible in school. Kids can still legally pray in school. Kids can still legally proselytize in school. It just cannot be mandated by the school.

On the flip side, teachers can legally say what they want in public outside of school hours. Their free speech is not encumbered in any way.

Not to mention the faithful have the option of private or home schooling if they want a religious education taught.

And let's be honest, doesn't it all boil down to evolution and science? If this is the big stopping block, just take evolution out of public schools and only teach it as a college elective.

Sure, this may set science back 100 years, but at least we will stop arguing about it.

Kent H said...

Actually you lay out the instruction part of this argument fine. There is no religious instruction in public schools -- and you're right -- there shouldn't be.
The problems of late have been can a classmate write religiously-viewed papers for assignments? Can a student led Bible club meet on schools grounds? Can a teacher have a Bible sitting on her desk? All of these are issues where courts have been approached and bad decisions have been made. Evolution is not the issue. The issue is still that in individual school systems, children's and teachers' basic 1st Amendment rights are being violated. And that shouldn't be OK with anybody.

My 2,

Darren Staley said...


Thanks for the response.

I have no problems with a student-led club having a Bible discussion group on school grounds. I have no problem with a student-led athiest discussion or gay discussion. As long as teachers or administrators remain hands-off that's fine with me.

Nor do I care about a teacher having a Bible on their desk, as long as a teacher can also have a Koran or Origin of Species on their desk.

Finally, if a student turns in a paper using religion as their base point, I have no problem with that either. If the student turns in a biology paper that dismisses evolution, the paper should get an F. But they should be allowed to turn it in.

I'm not sure where we disagree here.

Kent H said...

Agreed (except for the biology paper of course -- if he makes the point - agree or not - it's an A).
But more importantly than you or I agreeing, the constitution agrees with us. But court cases are all over the map on these kinds of decisions.