The “culture-war” debate over public schools is about far more than education, an expert in helping schools and communities find common ground in conflicts involving religion and public schools told a recent summit meeting for educators and clergy.

“Schools are where people learn the civic principles, the civic virtues, that are finally what sustain the democratic principles of this country,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. “Public schools are where we engage each other across our differences. It’s where we learn to work together, despite our differences, as citizens.”

Haynes is author of a 1999 pamphlet A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools. In it, he said, is a four-sentence compromise consistent with the First Amendment and broadly supported by many educational and religious groups: “Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious-liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.”

Haynes said culture-war fights are bad not only for public education, but “endanger the future vitality of our country.”

From riots in the 19th century over whether Catholic or Protestant versions of the Bible would be read in schools, Haynes said, conflicts over the role of religion in schools have long divided Americans

He said current battles over prayer and teaching creationism in public schools are less about education than defending a way of life.

“These struggles about religion and schools have never really been about that 60-second to-whom-it-may-concern prayer in the morning or that Christmas tree in the lobby,” he said. “What it’s really about for many people is: ‘Whose schools are these?’ ‘What kind of schools are they?’ and ‘What kind of nation are we going to be?'”

Haynes said America’s schools must move beyond “two failed models,” both of which still survive in varying degrees in school districts across the country.

The “sacred public school” model, he said, privileges one religion–historically, typically Protestant Christianity. For the first hundred years of public education, Haynes said, the U.S. had a “semi-established Protestant culture” that began to change when Catholic immigrants came to America, often choosing parochial schools over the Protestant public education available at the time. Now, Haynes said, many Protestants feel like they’re sending their children to somebody else’s schools, and they struggle to preserve vestiges of the old model.

“Even if we wanted to impose it, it is no longer possible,” he said. “We are too diverse and too different, and more importantly it’s unconstitutional and it’s unjust. We didn’t form our country to impose our view of faith in public schools.”

The second failed model, he said, is the “naked public school.” It is built on the “mistaken idea that the First Amendment requires public schools to be religion-free zones.”

Haynes termed the often-used rhetoric that God was kicked out of schools “a false debate.”

“Teaching about religion is an important part of a good education,” he said. “Can you imagine learning U.S. history without learning about religion? That’s a short history. You can’t talk about suffrage, you can’t talk about labor unions, you can’t talk about health care or civil rights without mentioning religion.”

“Of course kids can pray,” Haynes said. “How can a Supreme Court tell Johnny he can’t pray before a math test?”

Media stories about battles over free exercise of religion, Haynes said, have led many parents to believe public education is hostile to their faith. “All it takes is a few bad stories in few school districts, and all public schools are painted with the same brush,” he said.

While both extremes in the culture wars say otherwise, Haynes said, Americans do not have to choose between imposing religion in public schools or keeping it out altogether.

He proposed a third model, the “civil public school,” which “separates church and state but not religion from public life or public schools.”

“Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion,” he said. “They must be places where religion and religious convictions are treated with respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they uphold the religious liberty of students of all faiths and none.”

The civil-public-school model, Haynes said, has won endorsement from such diverse groups as the Christian Coalition and People For the American Way.

“Our [American] principles work, but we have to use them,” Haynes said. “There is actually today more public expression of religion in our public schools than any other time in the last hundred years. This time religion is coming into the schools through the First Amendment door.”

Twenty years ago, Haynes aid, many public schools came close to becoming “religion-free zones.” Today, religious clubs meet on hundreds, if not thousands, of campuses.

“Addressing religion today, instead of being a point of division, can actually bring your community together, and it can rebuild trust where it has been lost,” Haynes said.

That doesn’t mean all will agree on all issues, like evolution, he said. “However great the challenge, if public schools expect to thrive in the 21st century, they have no choice but to move beyond the failed models of the past,” Haynes said, in “a historical opportunity for working together for the common good.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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