“Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of Democracy: A Statement of Principles”

Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tennessee

Our nation urgently needs a reaffirmation of our shared commitment, as American citizens, to the guiding principles of the Religious Liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The rights and responsibilities of the Religious Liberty clauses provide the civic framework within which we are able to debate our differences, to understand one another, and to forge public policies that serve the common good in public education.

Today, many American communities are divided over educational philosophy, school reform, and the role of religion and values in our public schools. Conflict and debate are vital to democracy. Yet, if controversies about public education are to advance the best interests of the nation, then how we debate, and not only what  we debate, is critical.

In the spirit of the First Amendment, we propose the following principles as civic ground rules for addressing conflicts in public education:

Religious liberty is an inalienable right of every person.
As Americans, we all share the responsibility to guard that right for every citizen. The Constitution of the United States with its Bill of Rights provides a civic framework of rights and responsibilities that enables Americans to work together for the common good in public education.

Citizenship in a diverse society means living with our deepest differences and committing ourselves to work for public policies that are in the best interest of all individuals, families, communities and our nation.

The framers of our Constitution referred to this concept of moral responsibility as civic virtue.

Public schools must model the democratic process and constitutional principles in the development of policies and curricula.

Policy decisions by officials or governing bodies should be made only after appropriate involvement of those affected by the decision and with due consideration for the rights of those holding dissenting views.

Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.

Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.

Parents are recognized as having the primary responsibility for the upbringing of their children, including education.

Parents who send their children to public schools delegate to public school educators some of the responsibility for their children’s education. In so doing, parents acknowledge the crucial role of educators without abdicating their parental duty. Parents may also choose not to send their children to public schools and have their children educated at home or in private schools. However, private citizens, including business leaders and others, also have the right to expect public education to give students tools for living in a productive democratic society. All citizens must have a shared commitment to offer students the best possible education. Parents have a special responsibility to participate in the activity of their children’s schools. Children and schools benefit greatly when parents and educators work closely together to shape school policies and practices and to ensure that public education supports the societal values of their community without undermining family values and convictions

Civil debate, the cornerstone of a true democracy, is vital to the success of any effort to improve and reform America’s public schools.

Personal attacks, name-calling, ridicule, and similar tactics destroy the fabric of our society and undermine the educational mission of our schools. Even when our differences are deep, all parties engaged in public disputes should treat one another with civility and respect, and should strive to be accurate and fair. Through constructive dialogue we have much to learn from one another.

American Center for Law and Justice
American Federation of Teachers
Association for Supervisor and Curriculum Development
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Christian Coalition
Christian Educators Association International
Christian Legal Society
Citizens for Excellence in Education
The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University
National Association of Evangelicals
National Association of Secondary School Principals
National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
National Education Association
National School Boards Association
People for the American Way
Union of American Hebrew Congregations

[Excerpt from “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of Democracy: A Statement of Principles.” Chapter 2. Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. www.freedomforum.org.]