Charles C. Haynes 71C 85G, senior scholar, The First Amendment Center

Religious Liberty and Diversity in Twenty-First Century America: How will we live with our deepest differences?

After nearly twenty years in the trenches of our nation’s culture wars over religion in public schools, I worry about the future of the American experiment in building one nation out of many peoples and faiths. E Pluribus Unum? As historian Edwin Gaustad points out, we look around the United States today and see plenty of “pluribus,” but very little “unum.”

We now live in the most religiously diverse society on earth, and, among developed nations, the most religious. Our increasingly crowded public square often is a hostile place where citizens shout past one another across seemingly unbridgeable distances. Incendiary rhetoric and personal attacks characterize conflicts over abortion, sex education, homosexuality, school prayer, and other hot-button issues. Any notion of the common good frequently gets lost in the crossfire of charge and countercharge.

Nevertheless, I remain hopeful (on my best days) about the capacity of the American people to find common ground across profound religious and ideological differences. My sources for optimism are twofold: First, the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment—properly understood and fairly applied—continue to give us an effective legal and civic framework for negotiating our deepest differences. And second, I have more good stories than bad about the efforts of many local communities to resolve bitter conflicts over religion and values in public schools.

Consider, for example, Modesto, California, where a bitter conflict erupted in the late 1990s over the question of homosexuality in their public schools. The fight started when the superintendent responded to reports of “gay bashing” by asking the school board to include “sexual orientation” in the district’s policy, entitled “Principles of Tolerance, Respect and Dignity to Ensure a Safe School Environment.”

Christian conservatives in Modesto feared that the use of the word “tolerance” signaled that the public schools now favored homosexuality (and that anyone opposed to homosexuality was, by definition, intolerant). Stunned by the protest, the school board invited interested citizens to join a committee that would be charged with “implementing” the policy. Not surprisingly, 115 people signed up. The divisions and distrust were so deep that the group couldn’t agree on what the policy meant, much less how to implement it. After months of debate, the district asked me to help break the deadlock.

It turned out to be a far easier assignment than I anticipated. Taking a step back from the issue of homosexuality, the committee agreed to spend a day focusing on the civic principles we share as American citizens, especially the rights and responsibilities that flow from the First Amendment to the Constitution.

After much discussion, the committee agreed that religious liberty or freedom of conscience is an inalienable right and that, therefore, claims of conscience must be taken very seriously. The group went on to agree that citizens have a civic responsibility to guard that right for others, including those with whom they disagree. Finally, they agreed to debate one another with civility and respect.

Once the group had clear civic ground rules, people were finally able to hear one another.

The breakthrough came at the end of an especially long and difficult day. A leader of the conservative Christians stood up in the back of the room to say that he was all for a policy that guarantees safer schools. “We don’t want anyone called names or beat up,” he said. “After all, we’re Christians.” That provoked a gay student to stand up and say: “That’s all I want out of this policy. I just want to be able to go to school without being harassed.” The group had finally realized that everyone in the room had the same aim: safe schools for all children.

After that, the committee was able to reach unanimous agreement on a “safe schools” policy. What began as a dispute about homosexuality and schools ended as an agreement on how to create a school environment that respects the rights of students to free speech and exercise of religion, while also ensuring that speech doesn’t degenerate into name-calling, bullying, or attempts to silence other views.

When Americans reaffirm First Amendment principles—the “unum” that binds us together as “We the People”—we are able to debate our differences with civility and respect and to create policies and practices that protect liberty of conscience for everyone. Can we live with our deepest differences? Can we sustain history’s boldest and most successful experiment in religious liberty and diversity?

We must.



 © 2006 Emory University