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Testimony of OLIVER THOMAS
Special Counsel for Religious and Civil Liberties
National Council of Churches
Before the United States Commission on Civil Rights
Hearings on "Schools and Religion"
Meeting on May 20, 1998

The hearing at which the Rev. Thomas delivered the testimony that follows was the first of three planned on the subject "Schools and Religion: A National Persepctive." The Washington, D.C., hearing examined current issues and disputes regarding public schools and religious rights and freedoms. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights plans to hold its second hearing in New York on June 12 and a third hearing June 23 at a site to be determined. A statutory report with findings and recommendations will be prepared and submitted to the President and Congress when the hearings are completed. See http://www.usccr.gov, the home page of the U.S. Commssion on Civil Rights, for more information.

Thank you for allowing me to appear before you today. I commend the Civil Rights Commission for convening this hearing on the subject of schools and religion. No issue is more important to the future of the United States. I say this for two reasons. First, religion is one of the few things people will actually kill each other over. We could look at the bloodiest conflicts in the world today from Europe to the Middle East to Asia, and we would find that a majority of them have something to do with religion. Similarly, our most divisive domestic issues. -- abortion, gay rights, capital punishment -- involve clashes of deeply held religious viewpoints. Second, we are the most religiously diverse nation on earth. Every world religion is represented here in large numbers, and there are literally thousands of sects and subgroups. Indeed, I received a letter just this month to inform me that we have yet another American religious group on the scene -- The Church of Princess Diana. Conservative Christians are more politically active than ever, yet one of the fastest growing groups is those who claim no religious affiliation. Unless Americans can live together with these deep differences, our public education system will struggle to survive.

Having said that, I am pleased to report that significant progress has been made in how religion is treated in the nation's public schools. Certainly, problems of compliance remain on both ends of the spectrum. Some districts continue to promote religion while others persist in discriminating against it. But overall, the Equal Access Act, First Amendment and related laws are being implemented and adhered to in a manner that surpasses that of any previous period in our history.

In the past, public schools tended to follow one of two paradigms, both of which failed. The first, the sacred public school, as Dr. Charles Haynes and I like to call it, had a distinctly Protestant tone. Protestant prayers were offered, and the Protestant Bible was read as schools -- often with the best of intentions -- sought to guide students toward what most Americans considered to be a proper moral and spiritual upbringing. Despite nostalgic calls for these "good old days," the sacred public school was not a place of peace and harmony. Communities split over which prayers would be offered and which version of the Bible would be read. Cincinnati and Philadelphia, for example, experienced "Bible Wars" in which churches and convents were burned, and blood was spilled. The reason we have a system of Catholic schools today is because the Protestant public schools were simply intolerable for devout Roman Catholics.

The sacred public school also failed the test of fairness. Forcing impressionable children to participate in or conspicuously to excuse themselves from religious exercises not of their own choosing violated the conscience of both parent and child. Though unpopular at the time, it is noteworthy that the Supreme Court's prayer decisions of the sixties are now supported by virtually every religious group in the United States including the Southern Baptist Convention.

The second paradigm was what President Clinton has referred to as the "religion-free zone." in the name of neutrality, some schools drove every vestige of religion out of the curriculum and out of the classroom. In such districts, Martin Luther King became a political reformer, "Frosty the Snowman" replaced traditional Christmas carols and students were told they could not gather around the flag pole for prayers or form Bible clubs on an equal footing with other extracurricular student groups.

At last, the country is embracing a third paradigm -- one that is supported by groups ranging from Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition to Norman Lear's People for the American Way. Under this approach, schools seek neither to promote nor to inhibit religion. Rather, they work to ensure that all faiths are treated with fairness and respect.

Three developments, in particular, have paved the way for this new consensus.

The first was the 1994 publication of FINDING COMMON GROUND. Now in its fourth printing, this First Amendment hand book for schools contains legal guidelines on religion and the curriculum, religious holidays and equal access as well as bibliographies for teachers and practical suggestions for resolving religious disputes in local school districts. When the book was released, attorneys for the Christian Legal Society and National Association of Evangelicals stood alongside attorneys for the ACLU and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to voice their support for this approach.

Then, in 1995, came the Presidential Directive on religion and the public schools. Arising out of a broad-based drafting committee chaired by the distinguished attorney for the American Jewish Congress, these guidelines have made a significant contribution toward increased understanding of the law as well as increased tolerance for one another. Finally, the Freedom Forum's statement of principles, "Religious Liberty, Public Education and the Future of American Democracy" drafted by Dr. Haynes and endorsed by groups ranging from the American Center for Law and Justice to the Anti-Defamation League, has provided a set of ground rules for living together -in public education despite our religious differences.

The most important work remaining is education, not litigation. Though we continue to litigate around the edges, the vast majority of Americans appear content with the common-ground approach in which government is the fair, neutral, honest broker for all students who are free to bring their religious or nonreligious beliefs and practices with them into the public schools.

Although Dr. Haynes and I have trained thousands of educators from hundreds of school districts in perhaps a dozen states, most states offer little or no training. Equally disturbing is the fact that teachers colleges are not providing students with either the basics about the religious liberty rights of students or the proper means of teaching about religion in a public school. Without training we run a substantial risk that, despite our best efforts at the national level, ignorance, fear, distrust and acrimony will continue to characterize this issue.

My recommendation to you is that the Commission, through its own efforts as well as those of its state advisory committees, encourage state legislatures and boards of education to provide their teachers and administrators with training on haw to deal properly with religion. Moreover, local boards of education should be encouraged to develop their own policies based upon these national consensus guidelines.

Respectfully submitted,
Oliver Thomas

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