'95 Trends II: Public School Wars

Each passing season brings dispatches from the church-state front lines in America's public schools.

In New Jersey, students asked to list "Christmas characters" didn't receive credit if they named Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Out in Oregon, a public-school calendar for December listed Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice -- but not Christmas.

And so it goes. Some students have been ridiculed for whispering prayers at lunch, disciplined for discussing faith or sent home for wearing religious t-shirts. Others have had papers rejected, or art projects trashed, because they focused on Christian themes. Students who create Christian publications or music may be silenced, while their secular counterparts thrive.

"Some educators keep saying that we make these cases up. But there have been so many that it's getting harder to say that with a straight face," said Mathew Staver, president of the conservative Liberty Counsel in Orlando, Fla.

But something different happened last fall outside Orlando.

The issue was a Seminole County policy forbidding teachers to discuss religion. The answer -- allow more free speech -- was inspired by new guidelines from Secretary of Education Richard Riley. These guidelines were based, in large part, on "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law," a tract drafted by a remarkably diverse coalition of groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Christian Legal Society, from the American Jewish Congress to the National Association of Evangelicals. Staver said the guidelines may soon help resolve a case in which a 4th grader's Bible was seized by a principal.

While neither of these cases may make headlines, both are linked to one of 1995's most significant religion news events. In July, President Clinton admitted that some complaints about public schools have been on target.

"Americans feel that instead of celebrating their love of God in public, they're being forced to hide their faith behind closed doors," he said, in Vienna, Va. "Americans should never have to hide their faith. But some Americans have been denied the right to express their religion and that has to stop."

The president launched into a detailed summary of the guidelines, which were released weeks later. Students can say grace at lunch and their religious clubs must have the same freedoms as other extracurricular clubs. Students can carry Bibles and wear religious garb. They can address religious issues in homework, and in art, as long as the subjects are relevant to the assignments. The list went on and on.

"Some school officials and teachers and parents believe that the Constitution forbids any religious expression at all in public schools," stressed Clinton. "That's wrong. ... Religion is too important to our history and our heritage for us to keep it out of our schools. Once again, it shouldn't be demanded, but as long as it is not sponsored by school officials and doesn't interfere with other children's rights, it mustn't be denied."

This was amazing, because conceding that school leaders have violated the rights of many religious people raises a big question: Was it ever politically wise to anger religious people who are either a large minority or, if loosely defined, even a majority? The bottom line: 1994 was the year of the angry white male. In 1995, Clinton's words were a first response to the complaints of millions of angry, (primarily) white, theologically conservative males (and females).

While many said Clinton's words were political, the guidelines came from a coalition that "simply wanted to help people in our schools get this right," said J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, which consistently backs Clinton.

"But no matter what you do, no matter how many sets of guidelines you send out, the tough cases are going to be hard to decide," said Walker, who is active in efforts to circulate the "Religion in Public Schools" document. "We're going to have to find a way to use some common sense ... and work out our differences without waging wars in the courts or tinkering with the First Amendment."