Editor's note: This commentary was published in USA TODAY on Nov. 21.
Attacks on the "Godless public schools" have been at the top of the culture-war hit list for more than 40 years. Hardly a day goes by without some politician or televangelist reminding Americans of how the Supreme Court kicked God out of the schools in the 1960s — and how the nation has been sliding down a slippery slope of moral and spiritual decline ever since.
The banishment of the Deity from the classroom is a compelling story that plays well in a nation where millions of citizens take their faith seriously. There's only one problem:
It isn't true.
Yes, 20 years ago many public schools did come close to being religion-free zones. In the wake of the controversial court decisions banning state-sponsored religious practices, some school officials overreacted by trying to keep all religion out. Textbooks largely ignored religion, and teachers were hesitant to teach about it. Administrators mistakenly confused student speech with government speech and told kids to leave their religion at the schoolhouse door.
But that was 20 years ago. Today, most state standards and textbooks include considerable mention of religion; student religious clubs meet on hundreds, if not thousands, of high school campuses; the sight of Christian students praying around the flagpole or in the lunchroom is not uncommon; and Muslim students are routinely given a free room to perform daily prayers.
How we got here
What accounts for this dramatic turnaround? Start with the Equal Access Act of 1984 that opened the door for student-initiated religious clubs in secondary schools. Then look at how California broke the mold in the late '80s by deciding to require more teaching about religion in history classes. Finally, give credit to the remarkable agreements developed in the '90s on how schools should deal with everything from religious holidays to the Bible under the First Amendment — a series of consensus guides endorsed by everyone from the National Education Association to the National Association of Evangelicals.
In spite of these positive developments, some opponents of public schools stick to the storyline of the Godless school where guns get in the door but prayers are banned. These are the "Restorers," people who long to bring back the "good old days" when one religion (historically Protestant Christianity) was preferred in school policies and practices. Still angry that the courts won't allow school officials to promote religion with prayers over the intercom or by posting the Ten Commandments on classroom walls, the Restorers downplay or ignore all of the ways in which religion is alive and well in schools. Any concession that things have changed for the better would undermine their call for an "exodus" from "atheistic government schools," to quote a recent direct-mail letter from a religious conservative group.
Of course, it doesn't help that people on the other end of the spectrum — the "Removers" — are determined to scrub every vestige of religion from the classroom. Proposals to teach more about religions are attacked as backdoor ways to impose religion. Policies designed to protect students' religious expression are seen as efforts to encourage evangelization and harassment.
All it takes are a few bad stories to obscure the progress of the past two decades and to reinvigorate the culture warriors on both sides.
Exhibit A is the recent national brouhaha in which one teacher in one California school district (Cupertino) was accused of proselytizing in the classroom by inserting his religious views into the teaching of history. The Removers latched onto the incident as confirmation that teachers just can't be trusted to "teach about religion." Meanwhile, the Restorers saw it as fresh evidence of public-school hostility to all things Christian.
Caught in the crossfire, it's not surprising that some school officials are still nervous about implementing the consensus guidelines or that some teachers remain afraid to touch religion, whatever the standards say.
And it's no mystery why many students and parents are confused about what is and isn't allowed under the First Amendment. Nevertheless, the quiet revolution begun 20 years ago continues to spread.
All of the changes — the Equal Access Act, new standards and textbooks, consensus guides — are built on this: Under the First Amendment, public schools may not inculcate or inhibit religion. This means that school officials must be careful to protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths and none. And they must ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion (as distinguished from religious indoctrination) as an important part of a complete education.
Success in the classroom
To see what this looks like, visit Ramona, Calif.; Davis County, Utah; Mustang, Okla.; or any one of the many other school districts that have successfully translated the national agreements into local policies and practices that take the First Amendment seriously.
Instead of lawsuits and shouting matches, these communities have come together to find common ground on how to protect student religious expression while guarding against school endorsement of religion. Visit schools in these districts and you'll see teachers teaching about religions without controversy, students practicing their faith during the school day without interfering with the rights of others, and school officials handling potential conflicts over religion with the support and trust of their communities. Getting it right, however, won't be easy after more than 150 years of getting it wrong.
Moreover, agreement on some issues — such as the place of religion in the curriculum or when students may pray together — doesn't mean agreement on everything. The latest fight over evolution and recent lawsuits over where to draw the line on student religious expression in the classroom are stark reminders of how much work still needs to be done.
However great the challenge, schools have no choice but to move beyond the failed models of the past.
In a nation committed to religious liberty, public schools are neither the local church nor religion-free zones. They must be places where people of all faiths and none are treated with fairness and respect. In the USA, religion goes to school — but always through the First Amendment door.
Charles C. Haynes is the co-author of Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.