The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida on March 30, 1998 · Page 4
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The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida · Page 4

West Palm Beach, Florida
Issue Date:
Monday, March 30, 1998
Page 4
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Voice of reason building consensus in unlikely corners ;? There has never been this much agreement in the history of public education on how to deal with religion and values. That's pretty stunning after 150 years of public shouting. ' CHARLES HAYNES mediator and trainer of litigation. Even some groups that back Haynes' approach caution against overestimating it, citing turmoil in districts such as DeKalb County. But Runyan, the high-school principal there, says the Haynes program has shown him that "there's still a chance for reasonable people to resolve" the unfolding Alabama crisis. He also credits Haynes with getting him to think twice about "inadvertent, thoughtless practices" he used to engage in, such as distributing Gideon Bibles to his students. Indeed, during a meeting with Haynes and his staff, Runyan says he was inspired to deliver his own paean to the First Amendment. "I'm a 51-year-old man and a cynic," he told the group, "but if the Constitution can reach down, to protect the rights of one small child, what a comforting country this is to live in." . " Haynes "really raised my consciousness," says Runyan. "I never used to believe in sensitivity training, but I've had a heavy dose." of government institutions. There, he did a 1986 study of school textbooks and discovered, to his distress, that religion was barely being dealt with. The fact that the study was released by a group promoting church and state separation created a stir, prompting an editorial in The Wall Street Journal to suggest that political sentiment about keeping religion out of schools "may be reversing direction." That study, coupled with uproar over two high-profile lawsuits about the religious content of textbooks, gave Haynes' cause momentum. At a meeting about one of the lawsuits, he met Thomas, then a lawyer for a national organization of Baptist denominations. Some turmoil remains The two men began discussing their shared sense that even some traditionally liberal interest groups seemed to be developing more sympathy for the concerns of religious parents. They also perceived that almost all of the groups in the debate had wearied Biology Teachers recently backed away from an earlier declaration suggesting that a divine creator had no role in evolution. And the movement for a constitutional amendment to restore organized school prayer has stumbled, in part because key conservative Christian groups lost enthusiasm. All of which amounts to major transformation in a debate that three decades ago ranked near race on the list of heated social issues. After the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer and Bible readings in the early 1960s, politicians and religious leaders exploded. "They put the Negroes in the schools and now they've driven God out," fumed an Alabama congressman. Hoping to fend off further litigation "and controversy, many educators reacted by purging religion from their classrooms; that, too, stoked conflict. White House guidelines Haynes and others including the Clinton administration, which issued guidelines on the subject in 1995 have helped turn the tide by emphasizing the fered. But soaring Catholic immigration soon made even that arrangement unworkable, and Protestantism was taken out of the schools. By the time the courts got immersed in the issue a few decades ago, most schools already offered comparatively little religion. Once an aspiring minister Haynes' own career has mirrored the twists and turns in the debate. He once wanted to be a minister but decided against it after having theological doubts as a student Later, he worked for the research arm of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an almost absolutist advocate for keeping religion out were telling students the story of Christmas in front of a display case containing a creche, as well as symbols of other religions. Haynes "helped us realize that the question wasn't if we should teach about religion in the schools but how do we best teach about it," says former superintendent Morton Sherman. That question has vexed educators since the early 1800s, when the country's growing diversity forced teachers to quit their original practice of advancing whatever sect dominated their community. The result was a kind of compromise in which schools taught Christianity but avoided matters on which various Protestant denominations dif mm I i ... .,. ,j r-?J ' .,,.,..,,.,.. ..,.j -m-w m. jjt Jfcj mum m RELIGION From 1A the way religion is treated in thousands of schools. And he has 4 hopeful message for places Such as DeKalb County: Religion ;an have a major place in the oublic schools without offending nonbelievers or violating the law. I In district after district, Haynes has won praise for defusing hostile rhetoric and designing religion policies endorsed by people on both ends of the political spectrum. His success reflects a remarkable turnabout in the battle over religion in the schools - once one of America's worst culture wars. Even as extremists continue to use the issue as a social wedge, the fight is winding down in most of the country. In its place is emerging a new consensus that allows for extensive teaching about religions and their value systems, but no preaching. Public educators are also giving students unprecedented freedoms to observe their faiths at school, permitting everything from T-shirts with religious messages to student prayer meetings. ! "There has never been this Imuch agreement in the history of public education on how to deal with religion and values," says i Haynes, 48, whose program is paid for by the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., a foundation devoted to First Amendment concerns. "That's pretty stunning after 150 years of public shouting." Even in Alabama, where the process of complying with last year's court order has just begun, TIaynes has convinced some administrators that an amicable solution is tenable. I Judge DeMent's order, which Jdirected a monitor to police religious activity, came down so hard on the district that Conner Runyan, a high-school principal, says it initially conjured "images of 'Nazi Germany." Released shortly Ibefore the Christmas holidays, it 'also sparked a lot of confusion around the state. One school jcanceled an annual Nativity scene ;at its Christmas program; another ;barred religious music. Ruling listed OK activities f But the order never explicitly banned such activities, and both schools later reversed their decisions. In fact, the ruling included a list of permissible religious activities that looked much like a similar list issued by the state attorney general who was appealing the order. Runyan says he and jiis fellow teachers began to realize mis after talking with Haynes, who emphasized that the order still left plenty of room for religion and urged them to ignore its strident tone. ; Haynes explained that, "we aren't as far apart as we thought we were," says Runyan. "It was a revelation." The detente has been aided nationally by a broad shift in attitudes about religious teaching. Many religious conservatives, wary of entrusting their faith to bureaucrats, have junked the old view that public schools should promote Christianity. Meanwhile, in an era of drugs and schoolyard killings, liberals have lowered their caution flags, showing greater tolerance for religion. I The old "horror stories" of students being forbidden to bless their food or write papers about religion, says Steve McFarland, a lawyer for the conservative Christian Legal Society, are now 'fortunately rare exceptions." ! Certainly, some interest groups remain suspicious of efforts such as Haynes', warning that they could start a slippery slope to proselytizing. Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says some people who profess to be seeking common ground are really trying to "seize fcontrol." Skeptics also point to districts such as DeKalb County as evidence that some teachers continue to flout the law. A national model ; But after decades of litigation, courts have set fairly clear boundaries on religious teaching, and they regularly step in to stop aberrant practices once they are publicized. And in most of the country, signs of a truce abound. In Williamsville. N.Y., fighting over religion was once so bitter that some people suspect it contributed to a former superintendent's fatal heart attack; today, the school district's policy, which promotes "opportunities to learn about cultural and religious traditions," is considered a national model. Some Texas schools have offered Bible survey courses as electives, with little fuss from parents or civil-liberties groups. Even the age-old controversy over creationism was tempered after the National Association of ! (teen?1 Omwate wide range of permissiDie religious instruction. Indeed, the Supreme Court, in a frequently overlooked passage of its ruling against devotional Bible readings, said education should include "a study of comparative religion or the history of religion." People were so busy "screaming that God was kicked out" that "they weren't looking seriously at the alternative the Supreme Court laid out," Haynes says. Screening a videotape of a recent seminar he organized, he sighs as a teacher in the audience asks whether she can display the tissue-paper stars that her students make as Christmas art projects. "Look how nervous she is," Haynes says. So many teachers think that anything religious "is just too messy, and we can't do it." In a field dominated by fiery personalities, Haynes is unusually low-key. But he projects a reasonableness that seems to foster consensus. He has also been aided by Oliver "Buzz" Thomas, a part-time Baptist preacher from eastern Tennessee who has built credibility with religious conservatives. Together, they have brought together groups with starkly different philosophies, like Christian evangelicals and liberal political activists, to draft consensus guidelines for teaching about everything from religion to sex. One of Haynes' first projects was a dispute in Salisbury, Md., that erupted after a teacher refused to let a student write a paper about Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation. As in many districts where such controversies have arisen, the school board reacted by trying to develop a comprehensive policy that might help avoid conflicts in the future. And as in many districts, that discussion temporarily unleashed even more rancor. It was "a minefield out there," says then-superintendent Evelyn Hol-man. Tempers still flare Two conservative Christians on the board provoked Jewish and secular members of the community by hosting a day of prayer in a school auditorium. Some parents were offended when one of those board members proposed a policy that would have injected more religion into the curriculum. Tempers also flared when a band marched onto a football field in the shape of a cross. In the midst of this, Hol-man, who had read of Haynes and Thomas, called them in. Ultimately, the district adopted a policy heavily based on Haynes' approach. It urges teachers to be "fair and balanced" in discussing religion, even raising the possibility of disciplinary action for those who aren't But the policy contemplates a lot of religious instruction. It allows teachers to assign religious literature and music and to display religious symbols as instructional aids. The policy also describes religious holidays as "opportunities for educating," encouraging high-school history and literature classes to "consider the holy days of religious traditions." Many disputes that Haynes has mediated began with what is known as the "December dilemma" of how to handle the winter holidays. In South Orangetown, N.Y., Haynes was brought in amid controversy that started over whether a Nativity scene, rather than the more secular Christmas tree, should have been displayed next to a Hanukkah menorah at a local school. 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