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The First Amendment Center in Nashville held a conference last week entitled “Beyond the Culture Wars: A Leadership Conference on the Future of Religion in Public Schools.”

The aims were twofold: first to consider how well public schools are dealing with issues concerning religion and religious liberty and second to explore what ought to be done to help schools and communities address the remaining issues.

The three main areas of interest were religion and science, religion and world religion/Bible courses and issues related to religious expression, i.e. equal access.

The group was made up with a robust panel of experts. Attorneys who were experts in First Amendment law were paired with public educators and university professors. Also included were people of many faith and secular traditions. These experts were divided into groups to delve head first into these topics. Conversation flowed easily; consensus was not so forthcoming.

There were two areas of basic agreement. The first was somewhat philosophical. What schools should strive for is a “civic public square.” Public schools should be a place where religion is a part of the dialogue.

Religion is too essential to public schools to ignore. Can one discuss Steinbeck’s East of Eden without mentioning biblical allusions? Can the civil-rights movement be understood outside of African-American church? Can one explain the significance of Malcolm X without an explanation of Islam? How does one explain the geography of Israel without a discussion of Zionism?

To have a liberal education void of any discussion of religion is dishonest and disingenuous. One expert had studied text books. Thousand-page textbooks in the area of social studies had only a few paragraphs mentioning religion. Many science texts never mentioned religion, not even alluding to the existence of creationism, even in a historical discussion.

Another point of agreement involved the alternatives to the civic public square.

Everyone seemed to agree that rhetoric from the “sacred public square”–pervasive and dominant religion-oriented discussion–and the “naked public square”–complete absence of religion at all in the public-school arena–now dominate the conversation.

More than that, the inflammatory nature of these conversations makes the situation very difficult. In an attempt to raise money and galvanize fanatical supporters, the dialogue has turned increasingly vitriolic and divisive.

The group agreed that a rational and reasonable middle ground could provide safe harbor for substantive conversations to occur.

A New York Times article printed on the first day of the meeting seemed to underscore the timeliness of the discussion. Robin Marantz Henig writes about the deep divide between evolutionists and intelligent design proponents in the piece entitled “Darwin’s God.”

In one place the author writes: “In the century that followed [the 20th], a polite convention generally separated science and religion, at least in much of the Western world. Science, as the old trope had it, was assigned the territory that describes how the heavens go: religion how to go to heaven.”

That has changed in recent years. Anti-religion books by scientists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett have portrayed these men as the “unholy atheists of neo-atheists, promoting their secular world view with a fervor that seems almost evangelical.”

On the other side you have Intelligent Design advocates that truly are “evangelical” in style and belief. This is a worldview that at first may seem to be creationism, but indeed it differs in many ways.

One person asked a poignant question: “Are ID books registered in the Library of Congress as books of science, books of religion, or books of philosophy?” The question was not sarcastic; it just underscored the lack of respect in the scientific community for ID. It must be added that there is not much more for creationism either.

The divide between these camps is felt on high school campuses, where there is little or no discussion of religion in the science classroom.

This basic consensus of the need for a civil public square was conceded, but strategies about how to achieve such an environment were harder to come by. There are a few public schools out there that have had success. The group discussed ways to get those success stories out there.

The second main point of consensus was the need for further dialogue. Noticeably absent from the discussion were scientists and philosophers. Scientists are reticent to come to the table, because they have a monopoly.

When your view holds 100 percent of all public school textbooks, there is little incentive to come to the table. The group agreed, however; that it is in the best interest of science to foster this discussion.

How does one explain that the vast majority of Americans believe in God, but a relatively small number of Americans believe in “absolute evolution?” Despite having a monopoly in the public classroom, science and evolution have yet to win the day. Many people compartmentalize these issues. The group felt that secondary students were mature enough and even deserved such a conversation.

At the end of the day, what was settled? Two things, I think.

First, we all learned that the battle for freedom of expression and religious liberty is never completely over.

Second, this path toward a healthy balance of public schools and religion is treacherous and mostly uphill, but well worth the journey.

As my favorite expert said, “Can any education devoid of even the mention of religion be considered an education at all, much less a liberal education?”

That question demands an answer. I just hope I am a part of the next conversation.

Charles Haynes, from the First Amendment Center, will publish a report soon from our findings. I am anxious to see what he will produce. His publications in the past have made the complex easily understood. I am anxious to see that occur in this context.

Ed Hogan is pastor of Jersey Village Baptist Church in Houston.

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