BY BENNY L. GOODEN
When the framers of our Constitution addressed government involvement in religion in the First Amendment, it is unlikely they anticipated the controversy those statements would spur in the centuries to follow. While constitutional scholars and historians engage in a lively debate with those who assert that Madison, Jefferson and others never intended for government to erect a “wall of separation” between church and state, the practical interaction between religious practice and public schools has presented continuing challenges to school leaders.
The communities in which many of us reached adulthood likely had a very different religious tone from that found in cities and towns across America today. The number of religious affiliations was limited to a handful of Protestant churches, a Catholic parish and possibly a Jewish synagogue. Each sustained its own traditions and practices in relative harmony. School activities and celebrations associated with religious beliefs were common and generally accommodated with dignity and respect by all.
It was only when a predominant or majority religion chose to impose mandatory sectarian practices upon everyone that the real controversy arose. Much of the litigation in this field can trace its roots to attempts by those with local or state governing authority to impose particular religious practices upon everyone using the power of government — whether school board, city or state — as the pretext.
Today’s vast national fabric of religious organizations presents a significantly different environment for public schools. Even small communities have an abundance of different faiths that extend far beyond the traditional. Eastern religions, evangelicals of all types and a range of religious dogma all influence our students and the school staff who serve them. Any religious activity provided under the auspices of a publicly funded school district certainly will incur the disapproval of someone.
A wise school board member once opined to me that he wanted prayer to be sponsored in all our classrooms, just so long as it was a prayer consistent with his particular religious denomination’s beliefs. By his tongue-in-cheek statement, he spoke volumes on a popular topic. This discussion is often elevated to high levels as debate and demagogy by those seeking to curry favor with various religious groups continue.
Regardless of the debate about separation of church and state, students and school employees do not leave their religious beliefs at the door to the school. Many of the teachings in today’s schools include the basic tenets of religion, including honesty, social justice, concern for others and any number of principles that hold their basis in religious beliefs and practices.
It is to the benefit of all society that our children learn these values in the home or in a religious setting and that they bring them to the public school. Will all these values be congruent? No. However, they will provide a foundation for discussion and for teaching respect for the beliefs of others, a concept lacking in much of our society today.
Horace Mann designed his common school to be the great equalizer, to include students from every religion, social class, race and background. We must promote Mann’s values in the 21st century. We need the freedom to practice religion without government mandates or prohibitions. No, God has not been expelled from school. But neither has the school defined and regulated the presence of a supreme being.
Make no mistake: The First Amendment is alive and well in our public schools. It is the responsibility of school leaders to articulate and practice the neutrality this principle holds toward all religions — and toward those who choose not to engage in religious practice.
Benny Gooden is AASA president for 2012-13. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org