NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Public school educators could do better at promoting understanding of religion while avoiding infringement of the First Amendment, according to a group of religious and education leaders.
About 50 people with expertise in issues concerning religion in public education attended a conference on the future of religion in public schools at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University this week.
Participants discussed how the First Amendment, which bars laws establishing religion, should be applied in schools. They also explored ways to avoid conflicts and lawsuits.
Charles Haynes, a senior scholar for the First Amendment Center, said the last two decades had seen religion mentioned more in textbooks and more religious expression by public school students.
"There's been a quiet revolution in how religion is treated in public schools," he said. "Slowly but surely there's been a lot of religious expression returning to public schools. It's generally understood now that it's protected speech in schools."
Religion is now often taught in literature, history, art and music courses in public schools, there are more religious clubs and activities and schools recognize the importance of religious holidays. The re-entry of religious conservatives into the political arena contributed to these changes, as did guidelines developed in the Clinton administration to protect student religious expression.
But conflicts still arise and can lead to lawsuits from both sides of a particular issue, Haynes said.
It's that fear of litigation and a misunderstanding of what's allowed under the First Amendment that has led some schools to handle religious expression improperly. Teachers and administrators are often not adequately trained to handle religious issues in public schools.
Generally under the First Amendment, public schools are expected to be fair and neutral toward religion — recognizing that students have certain rights to express religious views and not showing hostility to those that do so.
But participants said it was not constitutional for school officials to endorse or favor any religious denomination over another when teaching courses that include religious subject matter.
One hot-button issue resulting in a number of lawsuits within recent years deals with elective courses on the Bible.
Such courses are supposed to teach different denominations' interpretations of the Bible, how it was developed and its status as literature, but some lean toward indoctrination and endorsing one interpretation over another, conference participants said.
"Some would like to have the Bible courses be essentially Sunday-school lessons and they are supportive of it with that notion in mind," said Melissa Rogers, professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School.
"If the classes are not Sunday-school classes, then that raises a problem for them. Some are worried they will be Sunday-school classes. Some are worried they won't be," Rogers said.
Other problems resulting in lawsuits involve student religious expression before captive audiences, such as school ceremonies or in classrooms, and the debate over how evolution should be taught.
Both issues remain ongoing conflicts for many schools, Haynes said, even as student religious expression has increased.
"It's more common to see students praying around the flagpole or at lunch or recess, bringing scripture to school, handing out religious material at schools to share their religion with others," Haynes said.
"Twenty years ago, you wouldn't have seen all of these things. Most of these things have been resolved, but there are some issues where public schools have not reached a consensus."
After the conference, called "Beyond the Culture Wars: A Leadership Conference on the Future of Religious Liberty in Public Schools, Haynes will prepare a document on the key points examined. It will be distributed to educators, policy makers and news media. The conference was co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Amendment Center and the Council on America's First Freedom.