Expert offers ground-rules for religion in public schools

ABILENE—Whatever the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decides, communities should strive to have better conversations about the role of religion in public schools, Melissa Rogers told participants at the T.B. Maston Christian Ethics Lectures at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary .

Rogers, director of the Center for Religion & Public Affairs at Wake Forest University, offered a few ground-rules for guiding the religion-in-schools debate in communities across the nation.

Before outlining her ground-rules, Rogers explained what kinds of prayer, religious speech and religious curriculum are allowed and disallowed in public schools.

Melissa Rogers

Put simply, she said, “The only kind of prayer that is not permitted at public schools is the kind the government leads or sponsors.” For example, students may pray silently at any time and may pray audibly over lunches and at other times “as long as they are not disruptive and the school does not sponsor the religious expression.”

But schools “cannot organize or sponsor prayers during class time or at school events, whether through teacher-led prayer, inviting clergy to pray, organizing student votes on prayer or otherwise,” she reported, also noting, “Moments of silence are unconstitutional if they are used to promote prayer.”

Rogers affirmed the place of religion in public school curriculum.

“We cannot understand our nation or our world without understanding religion,” she said. “But how can we ensure that schools teach about religion rather than preach about it? After all, preaching about religion is not the job of the schools, but rather the job of religious leaders, houses of worship, and family.”

The landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision Abingdon Township v. Schempp “made clear that public schools could not engage in devotional teaching of religion,” she noted, adding, “In this same decision, the court also noted that academic teaching about religion was constitutional and even desirable within public school classrooms. …

No indoctrination

“The Supreme Court has made it clear that the school’s curricula must be shaped by academic rather than religious principles and that it must not otherwise seek to indoctrinate students in religion,” she said. Schools may teach about religion if they are neutral regarding faith, neither inculcating nor denigrating religion, she added.

Rogers noted some ways in which the new justices on the Supreme Court may differ on these issues from the justices they replaced. But she acknowledged predicting the Supreme Court’s course is risky and often unproductive.

“We cannot control what happens in the future at the Supreme Court,” she said. “We can control, however, how we deal with these issues in our communities, and I believe that we can and should invest our energies there.”

Seeking to alleviate local battles over religion in school, Rogers proposed four general ground-rules that she believes everyone can endorse, even if they differ on more specific church-state issues:

Not religion-free zone

• “Our nation’s public schools are not and should not be religion-free zones,” she said.

“Students who are people of faith will want to express that faith on campus, and they may do so in many ways that do not involve state sponsorship and thus do not violate the First Amendment. … Further, schools need to teach about religion. Schools should never indoctrinate; they should never press for the acceptance or rejection of religion. But schools should instruct students about the way religion has shaped societies.”

To ensure that these matters are handled appropriately, she called for “mandating and funding teacher training” regarding religion and public schools.

• “The government should never create a hierarchy of faiths,” she insisted.

“It isn’t the job of government to determine which faith is right or best or dominant,” Rogers said. Instead, it is the job of government to safeguard the rights of all people.

“In short, one does not have to believe all religions are equally true in order to believe that the government ought to treat all religions equally,” she said.

“We demand full religious liberty for Christians abroad, in countries that are majority Muslim, for example, and properly so. On the flip side, we must demand religious liberty for non-Christians here at home.”

• “We should never heckle or bully others because of their faiths, lack of faith or positions on church-state issues,” Rogers urged.

“This should not be a difficult one for Christians, given that Christ taught us to love our neighbors. Frankly, and sadly, we don’t have to look hard to find examples of Christians behaving badly when it comes to debates about religion and public schools. That’s a shame. As the song goes, they should know we are Christians by our love.”

Truth, not cliche or rumor

• Tell the truth about church-state issues, she pleaded.

“Prayer has not been kicked out of public schools,” she asserted, citing one of the persistent untruths told about church-state relations.

“As the saying goes, ‘As long as there are math tests in school, there will be prayer in school.’ More seriously, we’ve talked about a range of other ways in which prayer is permitted in public schools.”

If people have more narrow concerns, they should voice them, Rogers said, noting blanket statements are not truthful or helpful.

“We only confuse the issue and hurt our public witness when we make false statements like ‘prayer has been kicked out of public schools,’” she insisted.

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