A Quest for Common Ground

Oxnard mediator uses technique in workshops
on church-and-state issues

By Tom Kisken, Ventura County Star writer - Saturday June 17, 2000

Prayer. Creationism. Condoms.

The triad can be a Berlin Wall for public schools -- antagonizing, impassioning and dividing communities. They can create school board meetings that rival Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey for a circus environment, letters to the editor soaked with rage and sarcasm and court cases that carry lasting scars.

It doesn't have to be that way, say mediators who use what they call a common-ground process to neuter the vitriol in public school conflicts over teaching students about homosexuality, classroom discussions of religion and similar tsunamis.

The method is what the name implies -- a quest for common ground.

"We get people away from 'what I want for my children' to 'what we want for all children,' " said Wayne Jacobsen of Oxnard. The evangelical pastor and mediator uses common ground in workshops on church-and-state issues as well as in consultation to school districts stuck in religious dilemmas.

Earlier this year, his BridgeBuilders company helped mediate a battle in the Ramona Unified School District northeast of San Diego, where school board discussions about addressing homosexuality in the curriculum drew crowds of about 400 people. The national nonprofit Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, a leading common-ground proponent, used the method in DeKalb County, Ala., after the courts got involved in the legality of prayers at school assemblies and sports events.

"It was a very ugly situation. You're dealing with religion and people's kids. I can't think of two things that will get emotions wound up any quicker," said John Ferguson, the center's religious liberty specialist. "We tried to go in and help people talk to one another instead of shouting."

Leaders of the Ojai Unified School District used common ground to help teachers, parents and administrators work together on guidelines for dealing with religion in the classroom. And now a born-again Christian on the Ventura County Board of Education thinks the problem-solving process may help in a brewing controversy on teaching creationism alongside evolution in science classes.

If it can weed out emotion, it can only help, said Ron Matthews, who has been pushing fellow board members about creationism for more than a year and alternately has been propped up and battered in a deluge of public reaction.

The Heart of the Matter

The backbone of common ground is an understanding and appreciation of the First Amendment and Supreme Court rulings on church and state. In his workshops, Jacobsen tells audiences the law is set up to protect religious liberty and to prevent schools from doing anything that inculcates or undermines any faith.

Teachers can talk about religion in classes as long as they do it in a purely academic way. They can explain the significance of Pope John Paul II's pilgrimage to Israel or the role of religion in various wars. They have to be neutral. They have to teach, not preach.

Once Jacobsen gets people to understand the law, the controversies often are solved.

"I get phone calls from principals saying how do I stop the praying around the flagpole thing," he said with a laugh. He tells them that not only can students pray voluntarily before school but an administrator who tries to stop them is infringing on the First Amendment.

Common ground is aimed at uncovering areas of agreement and avoiding debates that revolve around Bible quotations and angry references to separation of church and state.

The California Department of Education is using the process in drafting new prevention standards for sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. Because the state education code requires that the policy includes discussion of how the diseases are transmitted, public opinion has been passionate and divergent.

But when people of polarized mindsets sit together in a common ground committee, there is at least a chance at mutual respect, said Chris Berry, the state HIV prevention coordinator.

"One side sees that we're not trying to put condoms on every lunch plate," she said. "And there are things we can agree on. We don't want kids to have sex. We don't want kids to have risky behavior."

The areas of consensus become building blocks for a policy.

Learning to Celebrate Diversity

Despite the praise of educators from Ojai to Sacramento, common ground isn't immune to criticism.

When a religiously conservative community in northeastern San Diego County was irate because the Ramona Unified School District was considering a curriculum policy about homosexuality, a common-ground process was formed. The resulting policy stressed equality and acceptance of different lifestyles but stayed away from any hint of endorsement.

Anything that breaks down hate and intolerance is a positive step, said Edie Brown, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Ventura. But a few additional strides desperately are needed.

"We're in the 21st century. It's time to move beyond just tolerance," she said. "I firmly believe that everyone at a very young age needs to accept and embrace our diversities. Celebrate our diversities."

But Jacobsen contends that when it comes to some issues, the school's role is to support parents, not to tell students what they learned at church or home is wrong.

"It's not the school's responsibility to arbitrate social conflicts," he said.

Faith is Jacobsen's passion. But he's quick to emphasize his interest is not in slanting public education toward Christianity, rather in preserving religious liberty and neutrality.

He's a graduate of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., and spent 15 years as a pastor of a nondenominational church in Visalia. A critic of organized churches that spend more time on ritual than on faith, he counsels people who have dropped out of organized religion. He has written five books on faith, including the newly published "He Loves Me! The Relationship God Has Always Wanted With You."

But Jacobsen fidgets when asked to characterize his beliefs. Conservative? Liberal? Biblical literalist?

Labels, he said, push people away from common ground.

"Once you can name someone something, you can vilify him," he said.

'Evolution Is a Religion'

If Jacobsen wants to stay away from name-calling, he may want to reconsider his interest in the county school debate over creationism. He already plans to do a common-grounds workshop for the county this fall, and school board member Matthews is pushing for a larger role.

Matthews is reviewing the way schools teach evolution and contends it should be presented as a theory, along with the belief that credits life's beginnings to God. He counters arguments that creationism is religion by claiming evolution also is based on belief, not fact.

"Evolution is a religion. We're already bringing religion into the classroom," he said, contending that when children believe they evolved from animals, they act like animals.

Charlotte Poe of Camarillo disagrees with almost everything Matthews says. She's a self-proclaimed atheist who heads the Freethinkers of Ventura County and contends advocates of creationism aren't interested so much in religious liberty as in promoting their specific faiths.

She contends the only way creationism belongs in the classroom is if every other theory about life's origins also is discussed, from American Indian beliefs to Hinduism.

Ask her for a reaction to a claim that common ground can be found amid her beliefs and Matthews' and the answer is instantaneous.

"When pigs fly," she said.