DALLAS (ABP) — A “strong consensus” has developed regarding the appropriate role of religion in public schools, a church-state legal expert said.
Oliver Thomas, a constitutional lawyer who helped draft the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, spoke during a recent “Finding Common Ground” meeting in Dallas.
Thomas said a national consensus has developed around the notion of “substantive neutrality.”
“Substantive neutrality is a way to talk about living in a society where one's religious affiliations or lack thereof do not advantage or disadvantage you in the republic,” he said.
“We don't want government in the business of playing church,” he said. “But, on the other hand, we don't want the government in the business of, in any way, discouraging or failing to protect religion and religious liberty.”
Noting that legal interpretations vary and change, Thomas said, “There is no such thing as a legal safe harbor.” Nonetheless, in relation to religion and public education, “we have been able to create as safe a harbor as one can conceive.”
When taking a stand in favor of government neutrality, “you are on very safe footing, not only legally but politically,” said Thomas, former general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. He noted the presidential administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have interpreted the law governing religion in schools in very similar ways.
During a question and answer time, however, Thomas noted “teachers are understandably confused about some of these issues” because accurate information is not always getting to them.
Charles Haynes, senior scholar with the First Amendment Center, told the Dallas gathering that every public school principal in the nation was sent information by the Clinton administration reflecting the consensus about religion in schools. Yet one year later, Haynes said, a survey indicated many of the principals had no knowledge of it.
A Dallas school teacher at the event said religion is kept out of schools for 12 years, then, she complained, it surfaces in commencement exercises.
Thomas responded that “no school district has no religion” in it. “Church-state separation does not mean you do not have religion in schools,” he said. Each student brings his religion to school with him, and textbooks should “take religion seriously,” he said, citing the role of religion in the civil-rights movement and in the founding of the nation.
At commencement exercises, Thomas said, it is OK for a student speaker to refer to God, but it is not appropriate to ask other students to participate in a religious expression such as prayer.
Haynes described the importance of public schools being “laboratories for democracy and freedom.” The “civic mission” of schools in turning out good citizens needs to be renewed, he said.
“There are more than 16 words in the First Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution, Haynes added, referring to the religious freedom portion of the amendment. The longer amendment enshrines five freedoms - religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. While religious freedom — and the liberty of conscious it implies — are critical, all five freedoms are “deeply important,” Haynes said. Those freedoms have been used over and over to call Americans to “live up to the founding principles.”
The meeting was sponsored in part by the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Other sponsors were the American Jewish Committee, the Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund and the Jack Lowe Foundation Fund.