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Monday, July 20, 2009

Interfaith Alliance of Iowa: Proposed school policy on religion "ambiguous, unbalanced."

The Interfaith Alliance of Iowa's Exec. Dir., Connie Ryan Terrell, penned an excellent op ed about a North-west Iowa school district's desire to formulate a new policy on religion in the public schools. Connie finds the proposed policy "ambiguous and unbalanced." She concludes: "In policy and practice, schools must exercise extreme caution to protect the religious [freedom] of all..." //Mark Finkelstein

Guest column: Clarify, balance religious-liberties policy
CONNIE RYAN TERRELL is executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. Contact: connie @interfaithalliance • July 18, 2009 Des Moines Register

The Spencer school district is discussing a new public policy on religious liberty. It is admirable for the school board to tackle the contentious issue and attempt to craft a policy that defines the role of religion in a public-education setting and clarifies the meaning of religious freedom and expression.

The problem with the proposed policy is that it is ambiguous and unbalanced. The school board needs to return to the drawing board.

The policy states, "School will permit the graduating class to choose whether to have an invocation and or benediction to be given by student volunteer in non-proselytizing and nonsectarian manner." Why is it OK to put religious freedom up for a vote? Is it OK for the majority to win just because there are more? It is not the business of public schools to promote religion, even if everyone present unanimously believes.

If we allow public prayer at a graduation, a ceremony intended for all students, whose religion is honored? Evangelical or mainline Christians? Orthodox or Reform Jews? Unitarian Universalists, Sikhs, Muslims or Hindus? Whose religious freedom is irrelevant at a public-school event?

Several items in the policy are ambiguous, including "Distribution of Religious materials on School Grounds." Who can distribute materials? Does this include outside organizations? Are materials from any religion welcome? Can a teacher distribute religious brochures to students?

Perhaps of gravest concern is the policy section "Religion in the Curriculum." It's not because the school board wants religion to be included in curriculum, but because of the unbalanced description. Although the policy states, "Approach must be academic, not devotional," there is no balance in the electives or curriculum to be offered including "The Bible in History and Literature" and "Critic of Darwinism, a Scientific Approach." In the Darwin class, the only suggested text is "Darwin's Black Box" by Behe, a pro-creationism book not accepted by the science community. Does the school board show its hand by the examples cited and those excluded?

If the school board wants to provide "Religion in the Curriculum" in a balanced fashion, then cover the myriad of religious beliefs in "Religion and History," including the history of those who question or reject religion. If the desire is to provide a class on "Evolution vs. Creationism," do so as a political science or debate class and include examples of resources from across the spectrum of opinion.

One point in the policy where we can find common ground is "For many years public education has often gone too far in excluding religious influences for fear of offense. The purpose of this policy is to restore balance to the issues." Religion is an important element of society and history. Teaching about religion is important for students to receive a well-rounded education. However, the statement should also acknowledge that prior to the trend to exclude religion altogether, public schools allowed religion to have too much influence. Finding real balance is critical.

Public schools may teach about religion in a world-religions class, but they cannot teach a Bible study class. Schools may include songs with religious text at a concert, but the program should be diverse and cover an array of religious and secular music. In policy and in practice, schools must exercise extreme caution to protect the religious rights of all people regardless of religious belief, including those who choose no religion. In all areas, the personal beliefs and private expression of all students and staff are protected, with or without a policy.

Two great equalizers commonly valued in this country include our dedication to religious freedom and our commitment to provide a quality, public education for all children. Respecting the greatness of both and how they can complement one another is critical in this conversation.

When the religious freedom of each person is protected, it makes for a healthy democracy and a successful public-education system.