Religion In The Public Schools: A Controversy On The Wane? -- By: Oliver S. Thomas

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 08:1 (Fall 1990)
Article: Religion In The Public Schools: A Controversy On The Wane?
Author: Oliver S. Thomas


Religion In The Public Schools:
A Controversy On The Wane?

Oliver S. Thomas

General Counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs

John Baker worked a miracle. In 1984, the aging general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee shepherded a bill through Congress that would resolve much of the school prayer debate. In the wake of the passage of the Equal Access Act,1 Baker and a committee that included opponents as well as supporters of the bill drafted guidelines for its implementation.

The ball was finally rolling.

Four years later, seventeen prominent national religious and educational organizations issued guidelines on religion in the public school curriculum. Included in the document were such hotly debated issues as creation science and values education. A year later, an even broader coalition issued guidelines on religious holidays in the public schools. This fall, the nation’s first major curriculum project for teaching about religious liberty will be used in public schools throughout the nation.

Guidelines and curriculum projects come and go, so what makes these projects so special? It is the fact that the sponsors include Catholics and Protestants, Moslems and Jews, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Drafters of the equal access guidelines, for example, included the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Legal Society. Pat Robertson’s Freedom Council and Norman Lear’s People for the American Way also lent their support. The curriculum guidelines’ drafters included both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals. Other cosponsors included the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association.

As the organization that chaired three of these coalitional efforts, the Baptist Joint Committee can attest to the consensus that appears to be emerging on these controversial issues. While extremists on both the right and left continue their shrill criticism of one other—one side wants every vestige of religion swept out of the public schools while the other would convert schools into an evangelistic arm of the church—the vast majority of educators and religious leaders are finding that there is common ground. Religion can play a role in the public schools that is both constitutionally permissible and educationally sound. At the very least, people are beginning to ask the right questions—“Should we have teacher-led prayer in the public schools?” rather than “Should we have prayer in the public schools?”; “Can we afford to omit reli...

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