Feature                                                       Pages 18-22


Beyond Tolerance     

A considered approach for dealing directly with religious belief in the public schools


Religion. Just the word itself sends shudders down the spine of superintendents, as conflict over religious values can be one of the most unpredictable and emotional issues arising today in public schools.

In Canyons School District, with its 33,000 students in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, Utah, we have discovered such conflict can surface at any time in virtually every aspect of public education. In just the three years of our district’s existence, we have faced challenges (thankfully all resolved without litigation) regarding the proposed sale of district property for use by a private religious organization; the inclusion of a religious supplement in a daily newspaper that’s owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and that’s distributed to students and teachers as part of a Newspapers in Education program; and an elementary school holiday program with a heavy emphasis on the Nativity scene. 

David Doty
David Doty

Confronting these forms of religious issues does not have to be a terrifying and arduous walk through a house of horrors. In my experience as both a school attorney and superintendent, I have found three key strategies can help not simply prevent conflict, but also create an atmosphere of civility where all students and stakeholders know their matters of conscience will be appropriately respected. While these are certainly not the only ways to honor the beliefs of our patrons as we work together in an increasingly diverse community, they have been well-received and effective.

Engaging students with their peers of different faiths. First and most importantly, we have made a deliberate effort to expose students to different religious ideas and provide opportunities for them to interact directly with their peers across the globe who adhere to a variety of religious traditions. In the 2010-11 school year, Canyons became one of the first public school districts in the United States to pilot Face to Faith, a program funded and sponsored by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Face to Faith, a key part of an elective course in high school on world religions, teaches students to examine global issues through the moral and religious lenses of various faiths (including their own) and then gives them the experience of talking face to face, via videoconference technology, with their peers in classrooms throughout Europe, the Middle East and Australia.

I will never forget being in a classroom at Canyons District’s Brighton High School at 8 p.m. as our students connected for the first time, via a Face to Faith facilitator, with students at a school in New Delhi, India, at approximately 8 a.m. India time. The enthusiasm demonstrated by students in both schools as they discussed their religious traditions, holidays, school activities and social lives was contagious. In fact, when the one-hour videoconference ended, the Brighton students were clamoring for more time, expressing disappointment they could not keep on talking when it seemed like they had just barely been introduced to their Indian peers.

What was particularly impressive to the American students was how accommodating India is to its diverse religious cultures. They were quite amazed that Indian schools let out for virtually every major Hindu, Muslim and Christian holiday. Similar topics have been part of other videoconferences over the past two years, opening wonderful windows of insight into how religion plays a role in the social and political lives of young people across the globe.

Respecting parental and student rights of conscience through opt-out measures. The second key strategy we employ is a policy that allows for students and parents to request a waiver from curricular activities to which they object as a matter of conscience. This policy is based on an administrative rule adopted by the Utah State Board of Education several years ago that, if applied sensitively and properly, has the potential to prevent myriad conflicts involving strongly held moral or religious beliefs.

In short, the policy permits a parent or secondary student to request a waiver of participation in “any portion of the curriculum or school activity which the requesting party believes to be an infringement upon a right of conscience or the exercise of religious freedom in any of the following ways: (1) it would require an affirmance or denial of a religious belief or right of conscience; (2) it would require participation in a practice forbidden by a religious belief or practice, or right of conscience; or (3) it would bar participation in a practice required by a religious belief or practice, or right of conscience.”

In responding to such a request, the state regulations say school officials shall “(1) waive participation by the student in the objectionable curriculum or activity; (2) provide a reasonable alternative as suggested by the parent or secondary student, or other reasonable alternative developed in consultation with the requesting party, that will achieve the objectives of the portion of the curriculum or activity for which the waiver is sought; or (3) deny the request.” Significantly, a “request for waiver of required participation shall not be denied unless the responsible school official finds that requiring the participation of that particular student is the least restrictive means necessary to achieve a specifically identified educational objective in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest.”

How does this work in practice? Quite well, although it does require some effort and education, particularly for principals and teachers. We relied on this policy in our district in late August 2009, just as the school year was beginning, when we and other school districts nationwide learned President Obama would deliver an address to schoolchildren the day after Labor Day. As soon as this announcement hit the press, we began fielding hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from parents objecting to their students viewing the president’s speech.

Normally we do not solicit parental opt-outs, but in this case, with the Labor Day weekend approaching and little time to prepare our principals for what appeared to be a gathering storm, we tried to pre-empt the conflict by sending out letters to every home in the district informing parents of our waiver policy. Specifically, the letters informed parents that we would be airing the address live over the Internet and cable news networks during the school day (and that, therefore, we believed it to be part of the curriculum). He also told parents about the process for requesting an opt-out for their children. Of course, as soon as these letters hit mailboxes, we started to receive strident comments from the other side, with parents informing us that, because it was the president, every child should be compelled to watch the speech and that we were “caving in” to unreasonable special interests by permitting waivers.

In the end, few parents excused their children from the activity, and we were able to de-fuse a conflict which, although it did not really include a religious component, nonetheless was a strong matter of conscience for many patrons. We followed the same procedure in fall 2010 and fall 2011 with the president’s subsequent speeches with little to no controversy.

Interestingly, some educators believe opt-outs are ill-advised because of the precedent they set for anyone disagreeing with compulsory curricula. Therefore, it is critical for the superintendent to exercise leadership and remind reluctant staff that the First Amendment exists to protect the minority, and consequently the district’s practice of recognizing and accommodating the “one” is true to the very spirit of the First Amendment’s religion clauses.

Moreover, it has been my experience that providing accommodations does not open the floodgates to hundreds of exemption requests. To the contrary, meeting individual families and parents respectfully in the middle when waivers are requested usually helps to build strong, vibrant coalitions because parents will feel like the district really does care about them.

If nothing else, reaching out and striving to find compromises with parents who object to curricula based on religious principles will assist districts that do find themselves in a legal battle. While the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that a Tennessee school district had not impermissibly burdened the Free Exercise rights of parents and children who objected to a reading series the district required for all students in grades 1-8, one member of the panel wrote a concurring opinion in which he chided the school board for politicizing an issue that had been successfully resolved at the school level with accommodations.

Finding alternative dispute resolution: apologizing, negotiating and peacemaking. Finally, we have tried to emulate the example of a California school district that was the subject of my doctoral research in 1998. This 29,000-student district proved my thesis that traditional litigation is not the best way to resolve religious conflicts in schools by successfully undertaking an 18-month community policy-building process to address religious objections to the district’s approach to protecting gay and lesbian students. This process was initiated by a remarkable superintendent who, after listening to a group of parents describe the abusive gauntlet of harassment faced by their children every day in the district’s schools, apologized to the parents and indicated he would not lead a school district that allowed such behavior to occur.

Little did the superintendent know that, by offering such an apology and enacting policies to better protect these students, he and the board of education would be attacked on the other side by conservative religious parents who felt the district’s actions were promoting a pro-gay agenda. Yet the superintendent stayed the course, and he reached out to the objectors by including many of them in the process of finding middle ground.

Several of the teachers and district staff who participated in the district’s negotiated policy process emphatically stated that the process produced a good outcome not only because it resulted in consensus policy language, but because it established a civil community dialogue and positive relationships among the participants. They described the process as “the most important work we’ve ever done in education.” Similarly, several representatives from the evangelical Christian community who most stridently opposed the district’s position in the beginning said they found the process “thrilling” and their view of the school district had evolved from a position of “What does the district owe the churches?” to one of “How can the churches serve the school district?”

As with curriculum opt-outs, superintendents and other school leaders often are reluctant to enter into negotiation, mediation or other forms of dispute resolution with those who have religious grievances, for fear of setting a precedent or losing control of the dispute. However, such informal processes do just the opposite. They allow the parties to retain total control of the dispute instead of turning it over to a jury or judge, and they allow for much more sophisticated and nuanced outcomes, which often come down to simple apologies or other actions that facilitate reconciliation.

As with the California district, we recently had to confront serious accusations of racial discrimination at one of our high schools, which we addressed swiftly and openly. One unanticipated outcome of this conflict is that shortly after I addressed the racial issues, I began to receive e-mails and phone calls from other minorities in the district, including religious minorities, who said they finally felt free to speak about perceived injustices.

This dialogue and my willingness to apologize, even for incidents that allegedly occurred many years ago before my appointment, has opened a robust and rich community dialogue that I believe will result, over time, in real healing and stronger stakeholder involvement in our schools.

Working It Out
On Jan. 20, 1998, clergy, parents and hundreds of other members of this California district’s religious community stood before the school board having reached a peaceful accord with the school officials they had so vehemently condemned.

One of the community’s youth ministers addressed the board and offered a personal apology in which he stated: “I’m sorry. The church was wrong. We’re supposed to minister to justice, peace and mercy and we have done none of these things. We have been fast to pick up the sword. We acted like we owned the oxygen and it was on loan for everyone else. ... My faith is not about judgment and condemnation. It’s about grace. You can support this policy without supporting homosexuality because what you are respecting is other peoples’ rights. Churches and schools have to keep working together. We, for too long, have told the schools, ‘It’s your problem.’ We like to fill our pews with people with low liability, low maintenance and lots of money. We have to get involved. We have to ask questions. We have to help.”

This incredible outcome would not have been possible without school district leadership that understood the importance of educating the public, accommodating rights of conscience, apologizing for the district’s failures and negotiating with an inclusive group of stakeholders. I came away from my study of this district’s experience convinced that virtually every religious conflict in public education either can be prevented or can be resolved without litigation, if district administrators and school boards will take similar actions.

Effective school administrators in today’s world must understand how critical it is for adults, most especially superintendents, to find ways to resolve religious disputes a “third way.” In a note to former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman, reported by the Utah Bar Journal, one school-age boy wrote: “Thank you for letting us come to the Supreme Court. Why do you argue instead of talk it out?” For the benefit of children, parents and school communities, superintendents should ask the same question.

David Doty, an attorney, is superintendent of the Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah. E-mail: david.doty@canyonsdistrict.org


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