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Schools fail to help students understand religion, experts say

ROSE FRENCH • Mar 7, 2007 at 6:00 AM

NASHVILLE - Public school educators could be 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 and ways to avoid conflicts and lawsuits.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar for the First Amendment Center, said the last two decades have seen religion mentioned more in textbooks and more religious expression by public school students.

"There's been a quiet revolution of 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 (religion) in schools."

Bolstered in part by conservative political leadership in Washington over the last 20 years, 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.

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 have led some schools to handle religious expression improperly. Teachers and administrators are often not adequately trained to handle religious issues in public schools.

Under general interpretation of the First Amendment, public schools have been expected to be fair and neutral toward religion - recognizing that students have certain rights to express religion and not showing hostility to those that do so.

But participants said it's not constitutional for school officials to endorse or favor any one religious denomination over another when teaching courses that have 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' interpretation of the Bible, how it was developed and its status as literature, but some lean toward indoctrination and endorsing one interpretation over another, participants say.

"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."

Other problems resulting in lawsuits involve student religious expression before captive audiences, such as school ceremonies or in a classroom, and the debate over how evolution should be taught.

Both issues remain ongoing conflicts for many schools, Haynes said. "It's more common to see students praying around the flag pole 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, Haynes will prepare a document on the key points raised at the conference that will be distributed to educators, policy makers and media.

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