Finding Common Ground

A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools
The First Amendement Center
Charles C. Haynes and Olver Thomas


Chapter 1: From Battleground to Common Ground

More than 200 years after their enactment, the first 16 words of the Bill of Rights undergird the boldest and most successful experiment in religious freedom in human history. Despite periodic outbreaks of nativism, anti-Semitism and religious conflict, Americans can be justly proud that we begin the new century as one nation of many peoples and faiths.


The challenge for 21st-century America is not only to sustain this extraordinary arrangement, but to expand the principles of religious liberty more fairly and justly to each and every citizen. This is no small task. Today the United States is the most religiously diverse society on Earth and, among developed countries, the most religious. But exploding religious pluralism combined with bitter culture wars are making our public square an increasingly crowded and often hostile arena.

Nowhere is it more important — or more difficult — to address our growing ideological and religious diversity than in the public schools. Not only are our schools a key battleground in the culture wars, they are the principal institution charged with enabling Americans to live with our deepest differences. If we fail in our schools to teach and model the rights and responsibilities that flow from the First Amendment, then surely we endanger the future of our daring experiment in religious liberty.

This guide is built on the conviction that finding common ground on many of the issues that divide us is possible within the civic framework provided by the Religious Liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The key is for all sides to step back from the debate and to give fresh consideration to the democratic first principles that bind us together as a people. Then, in light of our shared civic commitments, we can work for policies and practices in public education that best protect the conscience of every student and parent in our schools.


Here is the good news: Although underreported by the media and still unknown to many school leaders, a new model has emerged for addressing religion and religious liberty in public schools. Over the past decade, religious and educational groups from across the

spectrum have adopted the consensus guidelines included in this guide. Where these agreements have been applied in local districts, they have enabled a growing number of divided communities to move from battleground to common ground.

The measure of just how much consensus we now have was highlighted in early 2000 when every public-school principal in the United States received a packet of comprehensive religious liberty guidelines from President Clinton and the U.S. Department of Education (see Chapters 6, 10, and 12). For the first time in American history, all administrators were given the closest thing possible to a legal safe harbor for addressing perennial conflicts over religion in the schools.

This new consensus on religion in public schools began to emerge as a response to the textbook trials in Alabama and Tennessee in the mid-1980s. Although the constitutional questions were quite different, both cases called attention to the fact that the public-school curriculum largely ignored religious ways of understanding the world. The educational issues raised by the trials were reinforced by several textbook studies. The liberal People for the American Way reached much the same conclusion as the conservative Paul Vitz: Public- school texts included little or nothing about religion.

In the wake of these trials and studies, we convened leading educational and religious organizations in an effort to find common ground on the question of religion in the curriculum. Groups ranging from the National Association for Evangelicals to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development agreed that ignoring religion was neither educationally sound nor consistent with the First Amendment. We were convinced that we can (and must) do better in public education.

After a year and a half of discussion and debate, we reached agreement on our first set of guidelines, “Religion in the Public School Curriculum: Questions and Answers.” Four months later we forged a second agreement, “Religious Holidays in the Public Schools: Questions and Answers.” This was soon followed by a third statement providing consensus guidelines for implementing the Equal Access Act. After a long history of shouting past one another, we had begun to find common ground.

[Excerpts from Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools. Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas. (New York: The First Amendment Center), 2001. pp. 3-5.]