From Battle Ground to Common Ground:

Teaching About Religion in Public Schools

To Americans United for Separation of Church and State

at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church

by Dr. Bruce Prescott

on April 14, 1997

 

When I agreed to participate this evening, I expected to speak on this issue from the perspective of a Protestant Christian minister of the Baptist persuasion.  That is a standpoint from which I will speak because that is who I am.  As I read the resource for our discussion this evening, Finding Common Ground:  A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education, however, I quickly found myself reacting from two other perspectives that are part of my own personal history and background.  I am not sure how representative I will be of either Protestant Christians or Baptists or ministers, but perhaps the peculiarity of these other perspectives will open some new possibilities for approaching this issue.

 

From the standpoint of a Baptist minister, my first reaction to any teaching about religion in the public schools is uneasiness.  In my mind, which is representative of the historic Baptist position but a view to which many modern Baptists no longer wish to adhere, public schools would do best to avoid teaching religion in the classroom.  We live in a pluralistic society.  Public school teachers affirm a variety of faiths and philosophies.  I am not inclined to trust such a diverse lot to be competent to give a fair and equitable treatment to the values and beliefs that I hold most dear.  From the perspective of a pastor, I would prefer that public schools would steer clear of teaching about religion and let each student receive religious instruction at his own church or synagogue or mosque or temple.

 

As I studied the material, however, I also found myself viewing it from the perspective of a public school teacher.  Before I became a pastor, I taught philosophy and religion courses at the public Junior College in Fort Worth.  I would like to believe that in those instances where I led classroom discussions of diverse religious beliefs, that I gave fair and equitable treatment to the values and beliefs of others.  I know that I felt an ethical obligation as an American and a moral obligation as a Christian to do so.   From my own experience, therefore, I do think that it is possible to teach about religion in the public classroom in a fair and equitable manner.  I am worried, however, that a lot of public school teachers may not feel as obligated to be as conscientious in this matter as I tried to be.  From the perspective of an educator, I must conclude that, as long as teachers deal conscientiously with religious beliefs, teaching about religion is public schools is permissible.  In fact, upon reflection, it may even be desirable.  If the public schools had taught their Baptist students about the religious convictions that prompted Roger Williams and John Leland to become advocates of religious liberty, perhaps there would not be so many Baptists today who have forgotten the faith of their fathers.  It is hard to imagine the public schools doing any worse than what the Baptist church has already done in educating Baptists about their beliefs.

 

Once I concluded that teaching about religion in public schools is permissible, my concerns shifted to the necessity to train public school teachers to deal with religious values and beliefs conscientiously.  The resource material indicated that there was considerable opposition within the teaching profession to adding another element to their curriculum.  I must agree that it is a heavy burden.  It will require teachers to achieve some measure of proficiency in both religion and in the constitutional requirements of the first amendment.  As I read, however, I could not help but note the similarities of their objections to the objections I heard when I was in college studying criminology and in Albuquerque’s police academy studying to become a police officer.  That was a few years after the Supreme Court set forth its famous decision on the case of Miranda vs. Arizona.  Police officers were being trained and retrained to comply with the Supreme Court’s guidelines and grumbling was constant that the law enforcers were being required to be constitutional lawyers as well as police officers.  To simplify matters and to assure uniform complicity, each police officer was given a card on which every citizen’s constitutional rights were printed.  They were required to read those rights, known as the “Miranda warnings,” to every suspect in a criminal offense. 

 

It seems to me that public school systems will need to develop and use something similar to the “Miranda warnings” whenever they deal with religion in the classroom. 

They need something to simplify requirements and assure uniform complicity among public school teachers on this matter.  It might look something like this:

 

            RELIGIOUS LIBERTY WARNINGS FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS

You have the right to a free conscience.  No one has the right to ridicule your beliefs.

 

You have the responsibility to respect the conscience of others.  You may question, but not ridicule, the beliefs of others.

 

You have the right to learn about the role of religion in the history of  civilizations and in modern societies without being pressured to accept or conform to any religion.

 

You have the right to express your religious beliefs at appropriate times in a respectful manner.  Within the classroom, you are not free to pressure others to accept or conform to your religious beliefs.

 

I would suggest that every teacher and every student should have a copy of these warnings, or something like this.  I think something like this should be visibly posted in large letters on the wall in every public classroom.  We should require teachers to read something like this every time they or their students begin to discuss religion in the classroom.  If this was the case, I think we could expect Americans to become as familiar with their constitutional right to religious liberty as they are with the constitutional rights that are secured by the Miranda warnings.  That may well be the one of the most effective ways of assuring that religious liberty is preserved in our society.

 

 

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