Demonizing public schools is unfair, destructive and just plain wrong

( [email protected] ) Jun 01, 2004 09:32 PM EDT

Parents of America, beware. Did you know that your children are getting an "anti-Christian education" in schools "run by the enemies of God?"

That's the apocalyptic assertion made by lay Baptist leaders T.C. Pinckney and Bruce Shortt in a resolution they'll submit to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting on June 15-16 in Indianapolis.

The resolution urges 16 million Southern Baptists "to remove their children from the government schools and see to it that they receive a thoroughly Christian education."

Pinckney and Shortt aren't alone. They're part of a growing movement among evangelicals calling for Christians to abandon "Godless schools," places they perceive as hostile to religious faith.

The push for an exodus from public schools is fueled by the widely held but false belief that God has been kicked out of the classroom. Writing in The Boston Globe last week, columnist Jeff Jacoby (himself a religious Jew) praised the Pinckney-Shortt resolution, arguing that "government schools today routinely suppress any trace of religious influence."

Jacoby went on to cite several horror stories in which children had been forbidden from saying grace before meals or denied the right to read a Bible story during free time. (Not surprisingly, he failed to cite horror stories from the other side, where school officials use their position to promote religion.)

According to Jacoby, kids in public schools are immersed in an environment that treats religious faith as "a superstition to be suppressed frequently." Warning bell? Or false alarm?

Let's sort fact from fiction. True, religion was largely ignored in the public school curriculum for most of the 20th century. And while some school officials continued to violate the First Amendment by imposing religion on kids, many others misunderstood the First Amendment to mean that kids should leave their religion at home. But what Pinckney, Shortt and Jacoby appear to have missed (or have chosen to ignore) is the sea change over the past decade that has brought religion back into the public schools.

Consider the classroom. Contrary to popular myth, the public school curriculum no longer excludes religion. In fact, all recently adopted state standards in the social studies are fairly generous to the study of religion. The latest generation of textbooks includes significantly more about the various world religions and the role of religion in U.S. history than previous editions.

It's true that more needs to be done to ensure accurate, objective and fair teaching about religion across the curriculum. But for anyone to claim that public schools suppress religion or dismiss religious faith as superstition is entirely false.

It is also false to claim, as Pinckney does, that public schools promulgate "anti-Christian, socialistic, pro-homosexual, no absolute right and wrong beliefs." Which schools has he visited lately? There are thousands of public schools where character education teaches right and wrong, controversial issues are handled in a balanced way, and Christianity is treated accurately in the curriculum.

But what about religious expression by kids? Is little Sally really unable to say her prayers? Of course not.

A few administrators may continue to wrongly apply the establishment clause of the First Amendment to public school students. But most administrators now know better. In fact, guidelines issued last year by the U.S. Department of Education list many protections for student religious expression — and threaten loss of federal funding if schools fail to enforce them.

Visit most public schools these days and you'll find kids bringing their scriptures to school, praying with their friends before school or between classes, sharing their faith with classmates, forming religious clubs in high schools — and in many other ways exercising their right to religious freedom. So much for "Godless" public schools.

Of course, this return of religion to the schools is nothing like the Protestant-dominated public school system of the 19th century. Today's curriculum is intended to be neutral toward religion, exposing kids to the role of religion in history, literature and other subjects where appropriate without either promoting or denigrating any religion. In the Pinckney-Shortt resolution, this neutrality toward Christianity is seen as hostility — "officially Godless" and "anti-Christian."

Nor is this return of religion to public schools a return to state-sponsored prayers and Bible reading of the early 20th century. Oddly, Jacoby appears nostalgic for the good old days when Protestant prayers and devotional Bible readings were state-sponsored. Why? Because, in his view, those practices affirmed "the importance of God and religion in American life." But let's keep in mind that those practices also denied the religious freedom of millions of Americans.

Even if these critics of public education acknowledged what's really going on in most schools, they still wouldn't be satisfied. They appear to want schools that teach religion (theirs) — not that teach about religions. They want official prayers — not protections for students to pray (or not to pray) as they choose. Fine. If that's the case, the answer is to leave public schools and educate kids at home or in religious schools. That is the right of every parent.

But why demonize public schools? Could it be that "exodus" advocates know they might not get far if religious people were accurately informed about what's really going on in public education?

Before voting on this resolution next month, Southern Baptists should hear about character education, teaching about religion, protections for religious liberty of students and all of the other ways in which so many public schools are trying to treat the convictions of parents with fairness and respect. Then, if they still want to leave the public schools, so be it.

Let's have an open, honest debate about the place of religion in public schools. But falsely portraying public schools as Godless and anti-Christian dangerously divides Americans — and is a great disservice to the thousands of dedicated, caring educators who serve our children every day.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209.


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