Seeking early involvement from parents, church and community leaders is the most effective way to lay a foundation for teaching about religion in the public schools in a way that helps build — rather than polarize — the school community.

That's the advice Buzz Thomas, an attorney and Baptist minister, shared with Utah educators Tuesday, detailing the specifics of "Moving Local Communities From Battleground to Common Ground" when it comes to teaching about the role of religion in history, society and public life.

Thomas is co-author of the nationally acclaimed curriculum by the First Amendment Center, "Finding Common Ground," which helps educators navigate the challenging terrain between church and state when they bring the role of religion into their classrooms.

He told dozens of participants gathered for a three-day conference at Westminster College that "having religious education in schools is important to academic performance," because students can't grasp the significance of history or the world they live in without understanding the role of religion.

Teachers must help foster an understanding of "how to live together as a people" in a multi-cultural society that can become easily divided along religious lines when stereotypes are perpetuated through ignorance, rather than addressed through informed education, he said.

He said many Utah parents want school vouchers because "they feel public education has become hostile to their religion and values." Educators often avoid talking about religion in the classroom in order to avoid a potential confrontation with parents over church-state separation questions.

"How do we reach out to parents, many of whom are coming from a religious perspective? By being pro-active. Don't sit back and wait until you have some kind of crisis, whether it's a holiday dispute or something else. ... Once you reach that crisis point, the battle lines get drawn pretty quickly and the dialogue is pretty difficult."

While Utah is the most religiously homogenous state in the nation, its population has become "diverse enough that you can't afford to sit back and wait for these things to come up, because it's going to happen," he said. Forming community groups with parents, church and community leaders to discuss their view of religion in the classroom helps reach a consensus that will carry educators through potential challenges, he said.

"Telling parents to just 'trust us' doesn't work, and arguing with them doesn't work either," he said, recalling his stint as a school board president and the calls he got from parents upset about a variety of topics. "Simply affirm who they are and the priority they have in the life of their child compared to you. I made a lot of friends that way. It's the most community-building thing I ever learned to do," though it's counterintuitive when educators are geared up to defend their decisions rather than listen, he said.

"Hearts are slow to heal" when parents have been ignored or their concerns marginalized, Thomas said. "People remember when they have been disrespected," and they also remember when they've been involved in the process and are given the chance to be supportive before a crisis comes. "That's when they can stand up and defend you," because decisions about curriculum or holiday observance weren't made in a vacuum, he said.

Cole Durham, a professor of law at Brigham Young University and an international advocate for religious freedom, said despite repeated characterizations about the insularity of the Muslim world regarding religious pluralism, he speaks often with groups of educators who visit the United States to see how Americans deal with diversity in schools and society.

"In Utah and the U.S. in general, the question is how do you work in ways that are respectful to all religions?"

Durham said Americans "can't afford the risk any more of not knowing about other faiths and coming to understand" why religion matters to people, how it impacts their world view and how to show respect despite deep theological disagreement.

"It's critical that this happen in the domain of education. Unless people internalize these values from a very young age, it's hopeless."

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