In the fractious debate on religion in American public life, those on all sides of the issue agree on one thing - the nation's historical tradition of religious liberty is a good one.
Increasingly they also find themselves in agreement on another matter - that tradition is not adequately presented and celebrated in the nation's schools.In order to address that second element, a coalition of national education leaders was formed, headed by Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and sponsored by the Williamsburg Charter Foundation. As a result, the group created a program that would teach religion in public schools without promoting a particular belief system. Boyer, one of the nation's most respected educators and the commissioner of education from 1977 to 1979, announced the project at a recent press conference.
"For far too long, we've had a remarkable silence on teaching about religion in the nation's public schools," Boyer said.
"This silence is not because of a conspiracy but because of confusion about what such a curriculum should include and a genuine concern that to discuss religion in the classroom might be viewed as indoctrination, or a violation of the conscience of students, as well as a violation of the fundamental principles of the Constitution," he said.
But the silence, Boyer said, has led to the mistaken belief that public schools "are at the very least, indifferent to religion, or at the very most, actively opposed" to religion.
"Most importantly, perhaps, the failure to include systematically the study of religion in the school curriculum has reduced the quality of education we are providing to our children."
The silence, in part an outgrowth of Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s barring state-sponsored devotional prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, has led to a number of efforts ranging from the religious right's effort to restore prayer to the effort, such as the Boyer project, to teach about religion in the schools.
Recently, a coalition of 14 national groups - ranging from the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs to the National School Boards Association - issued a set of guidelines on how that tricky question can be solved without violating the Constitution.
And the project, which follows on those guidelines, has received the backing of two of the most important groups acutely sensitive to the difficulty of the project: the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, whose members, as teachers, would have to implement such a curriculum. The 10-point charter, which focuses on the tradition of religious liberty rather than specific belief systems , will serve as the starting point for the curriculum.