June 20, 1996 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Restoring Religious Freedom to Public Schools

Parades, fireworks, barbecues -- it's that time of year when Americans celebrate their bold, 220 year-old experiment in democracy and political freedom. When it comes to religious freedom, however, many people will not be in a celebratory mood.

Consider: An Illinois school district recently banned any reference to God in student presentations at a commencement program. A California high school prevented students from distributing invitations to a Bible study group. A school principal in Virginia barred a student from reading her Bible on a school bus.

While some Americans accept such bans as enforcement of the principle of separation of church and state, others are up in arms over what they consider outright religious persecution. Due to efforts by religious conservatives, Congress may soon unveil an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to prevent educators from muzzling permissible forms of religious speech.

But Charles Haynes, an authority on religion and education issues -- and a religious conservative -- isn't sanguine about adding a postscript to the First Amendment. Although he laments a widespread failure to take religion seriously in the classroom, Haynes says a constitutional amendment isn't needed to protect religious expression. Despite some mistaken judicial rulings, he says, court interpretations of the First Amendment still permit private religious speech by students as well as classroom instruction about religion. "Let's try the Amendment we have before we add another one," he says. "We still really haven't tried to make the First Amendment work."

Making it "work" means educating parents and teachers about the forms of religious expression still permissible under state and federal court rulings. Haynes, a scholar at Vanderbilt University, and Oliver Thomas, an expert on church-state law who has taught at Georgetown University Law Center, work district by district, getting educators and community leaders of different faiths to agree on three basic rules: (1) Schools must protect the religious freedoms of students of all faiths, or of no faith; (2) parents have primary responsibility for the education of their children; and (3) public debates must always be conducted with respect.

School districts around the nation are signing up. Called the "Three Rs Project" (for Rights, Responsibilities and Respect), the program has been introduced in all of California's 58 counties. It has been endorsed by groups as diverse as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Christian Educators Association International, and the California Teachers Association. And a growing number of states -- including Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, New York, Texas and Utah -- are moving ahead with the initiative.

Of course, if the program can work in California, it can work anywhere. The student bodies in some California districts speak 90 different languages -- and almost as many ways to talk about faith in the classroom.

Haynes and Thomas have met with school officials and community leaders throughout the state. Their modus operandi: Encourage local school boards to approve the Three Rs Project, organize teams of parents and educators to attend seminars on the First Amendment, send teachers to curriculum workshops, and build community support. If this sounds like an old-fashioned civics lesson, it is -- and it seems to be working.

In the Snowline School District in Southern California a few years ago, the stage was set for a church-state debacle: A teacher prevented a third-grade student from writing a report on Jonah and the whale; officials hesitated when a school board member donated books espousing creationism to the school library; a parent objected when a high-school student group wanted to start every meeting with prayer.

But the community, trained in the Three Rs program, was ready. The district peacefully reached agreements on each flash point: The Jonah report was approved, books on creationism now sit on library shelves, and the student group agreed to begin meetings with a moment of silence, not prayer.

"It's very clear that the student expression of religious values is almost never inhibited by the First Amendment," says Jan Vondra, assistant superintendent of curricula and education services at Snowline. Rather, it is the government's -- and hence, the public schools' -- religious speech that is restricted. "As long as their expressions are not disruptive, student freedoms are very, very broad," Vondra says.

Now there's a lesson in liberty: that neither pluralism nor separation of church and state need hush freedom of speech -- even religious speech -- in our public schools.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

This essay by Joe Loconte, deputy editor of Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship, the flagship publication of The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., is adapted from his article in the July/August issue.