Patience in the Culture Wars

April 1999

Almost daily another school district is challenged over a library book, curriculum component, personnel issue or school policy that offends someone's sensitivities, and are asked to provide a remedy that other groups find unacceptable. If any parent or special-interest group isn't satisfied with the outcome a host of legal organizations from both the left and the right are ready to go to court to test the rights of their particular group.

With more pressing education issues such as raising academic achievement, lowering drop-out rates, and maintaining a safe-school environment it is easy to see why school administrators resent being asked to also referee the diverse political and social values of their community.

Howerver, it might help all concerned to realize that the so-called culture-war conflicts result from a unique convergence of historical events. Never before in human history has a culture sought to build its national identity without a shared religious experience. Virtually every governmental entity, from tribal communities to modern civilizations have shared a common religious foundation.

While Christianity provided that for most of U.S. history and continues to be identified as the religion of choice by more than 80% of the population, the Supreme Court began in 1963 to demand that our country take seriously the ideals of the First Amendment. Religious faith is a matter of individual conscience and the government will not intrude in that process either by inculcating or inhibiting religious expression.

No arena of our society has been more affected by this process than public education where the clash of values and the presence of children provide a particularly volatile environment. It is easy to understand why religious conservatives particularly see the decisions of the last 35 years as a repudiation of the values they hold dear and why many want to reassert their hold on public institutions. It is also easy to see why groups who have only been recently included in the dialogue will be as passionate about holding on to that freedom and extending it where they can.

Understanding and applying true religious liberty in the public school environment will provide sufficient common ground for all of these groups to work together effectively. Unfortunately, while the case for it has been made in the courts, it has yet to be made in the living rooms and school houses of America. Helping the members of your community understand this process will go a long ways for all groups to discover how they can live together beyond their differences.

There are two ways to do that. Some communities are providing common ground training for their staff and community volunteers. Others are forming common ground task forces to develop district policies for areas impacted by religious concerns including clubs, holidays, harassment, family-life education and other curriculum and personnel issues.

Communities that have hosted common ground activities have been pleasantly surprised at how it can disarm conflict and give a community an ability to respect their differences and seek together creative solutions that takes in to account the concerns of all.

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