Last month I was invited to testify at a briefing by the Civil Rights Commission in Seattle, Washington as well as listened to other educators, religious leaders and lawyers discuss the state of religious freedom in public education. Through the course of that day it became clear that the challenge to find common ground is being ignored in many sectors of education, leading to unnecessary tensions and distractions from more important educational priorities.
At a time when we have the tools to apply religious liberty in the public school environment in a way that can ease conflicts, it is disheartening to see how few districts really understand it and how quickly in its absence a simple misunderstanding can escalate into full-blown conflict and divide the community.
I see three things on the horizon this fall that may exacerbate this conflict in schools that have not yet helped their community understand a common ground approach to educational issues:
1.) The conflict between evolution and intelligent design. The popularity of the book, "Darwin's Black Box" has re-invigorated the creation versus evolution debate. Those who feel the science classroom seeks to undermine the religious faith of their children could more actively press for change here. Actually the debate within the scientific community can provides an excellent opportunity to ensure that the science curriculum is even-handed and honest about its conclusions and limitations.
2.) Two large national groups are calling for religious parents to remove their children from public education by 2010. Exodus 2000 and the Citizens for Excellence in Education have concluded that, "our nation has been in the grip of a liberal indoctrination of all America's children that has been designed to overthrow not only the faith in God of our nation's children, but has incessantly drilled our youth with an atheistic worldview that is totally anti-God in all aspects." A major conference in Colorado Springs this November asks, "Do 'Public Schools' Undermine Religious Beliefs So Much That You Should Remove Your Children?"
3.) Publication of a new book entitled ANGRY PARENTS AND FAILING SCHOOLS by a Christian Publisher, Harold Shaw Press could get a significant reading and help focus parent concerns about education. This book is not about religious concerns, but the loss of academic rigor to experimental educational methodologies which have not proven their worth in educating their children. There is increasing discussion and concern in the religious community that innovation and school reform has brought far more damage than benefit to education.
In this climate school districts are well-served to understand the nature of parent concerns here, not discounting them as irrational ravings but helping them and the wider community understand the role of public education and religious values. While public education cannot advance religion, it certainly cannot do anything to undermine it either. Tools are available to help your district build an environment of mutual respect where religious concerns can be resolved successfully.
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