The following questions and answers provide general information on the subject of religious expression and practices in schools. The answers are based on First Amendment religious liberty principles as currently interpreted by the courts and agreed to by a wide range of religious and educational organizations. If parents have specific legal questions, the services of a qualified attorney should be sought. Finding Common Ground
Parents and school officials in many local communities have had success finding common ground using the following strategies:
Include all of the stakeholders.
Because public schools belong to all citizens, they must model the democratic process and constitutional principles in the development of policies and curricula. Policy decisions by officials or governing bodies should be made only after appropriate involvement of those affected by the decisions and with due consideration of those holding dissenting views.
Listen to all sides.
If we are to build trust and to truly listen to one another, school officials must acknowledge what is valid about criticism of school policies and practices, particularly concerning the treatment of religion and religious perspectives. At the same time, parents with deep religious convictions need to acknowledge that the vast majority of public school administrators and teachers do not intend to be hostile to religion, and want to be fair in their treatment of parents and students.
Work for comprehensive policies.
Many school districts contribute to confusion and distrust by having no policies concerning many of the issues addressed in this pamphlet. By working with parents to develop comprehensive policies, schools demonstrate the importance of taking religious liberty seriously.
School districts unprepared for controversy fare poorly when a conflict arises. Where there are no policies (or policies are not known or supported by parents), there is a much greater likelihood of lawsuits, shouting matches at school board meetings, and polarization in the community. A pro-active approach takes seriously the importance of articulating the proper role for religion and religious perspectives in the public schools. The resulting policies and practices create a climate of trust in the community, and demonstrate the public schools' active commitment to the guiding principles of our democracy.
Commit to civil debate.
Conflict and debate are vital in a democracy. Yet, if we are going to live with our deepest differences, then how we debate, and not only what we debate, is critical. Personal attacks, name-calling, ridicule, and similar tactics destroy the fabric of our society and undermine the educational mission of our schools. All parties should treat one another with civility and respect, and should strive to be accurate and fair. Through constructive dialogue we have much to learn from one another.