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L.A. Educators Get Lessons in Handling Religious Expression

Training: District is using new guidelines on dealing with religious clubs, prayer and proselytizing. The method has received endorsements from liberals and conservatives.

November 09, 1996|JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles C. Haynes tells of a public school class turned to chaos by a finger-pointing, angry exchange on who was going to hell. Finally, he said, the exasperated teacher threw up her hands and said, "You're all right," halting the debate.

The story illustrates the flammability of religious topics, which has tempted many an educator to avoid all religious discussions and activities in the classroom.

But the Los Angeles Unified School District has taken a first step toward training educators to deal with religious expression, turning to the California 3Rs Project and its founder, Haynes, a Nashville-based authority on religion in public schools.

Haynes has designed guidelines to help educators deal with such issues as religious clubs, school prayer and proselytizing. He draws on religious, legal and education experts from throughout the country and has received endorsements from liberals and conservatives.

Haynes told the story of the exasperated teacher last week at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage during a workshop for about 50 teachers, a modest starting point in a long-term project backed by Los Angeles school officials who deal with multicultural and diversity issues.

Evangelina Stockwell, assistant principal for the district's Office of Intergroup Relations, said the problems are not limited to the religious holiday seasons. New issues include the growing number of Muslim students, who are sometimes teased or harassed by other children for wearing head coverings or for not eating lunch during the daytime fasting month of Ramadan.

"Respect for each other and fairness are the bottom line, but I welcome any help I can get," said workshop participant Marsha McHarg of Reed Middle School in North Hollywood. "You're not a [good] teacher if you don't deal with it."

Los Angeles' 650 public schools have not had the kind of religious liberty disputes that occasionally engulf smaller cities. But Haynes and colleagues have often been summoned to those situations.

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On Oct. 28, Haynes held a workshop for 2,200 people--from teachers to cafeteria workers--in the Chino Unified School District, where a crisis erupted last December over a school Christmas play canceled on grounds of church-state separation. The district's school board hammered out new policies, then asked the California 3Rs Project to lead a religious-diversity training workshop.

The 3Rs project, based in Isla Vista near the UC Santa Barbara campus, stands for "rights, responsibilities and respect" relating to religious matters.

"Distrust [by parents] is very high in some quarters," especially among conservative Christians, Haynes told the Los Angeles workshop.

"Some parents feel that we let everything else in and then keep their faith out," he said, adding that those parents believe public education is blind to the religious aspects of such practices as yoga, meditation and visualizing exercises, but is sure to "notice when Jesus is there and shut it right down."

Haynes, a scholar-in-residence at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, said many conservative Christian leaders have endorsed ground rules for even-handed religious expression in "Finding Common Ground," a guidebook he edited. The book reflects a consensus among Jewish, civil libertarian, evangelical and teacher association leaders, he said.

"Charles Haynes is probably one of the greatest leaders we have in the country to bridge the gap" between liberal and conservatives, said Christian organizer Robert Simonds of Irvine, whose Citizens for Excellence in Education has fought battles over religious issues and urged conservative Christians to run for school board seats.

"He's probably the guy who can bring peace back to the public schools. I've been in meeting after meeting with Charles. Whenever he's there, you just always agree with him."

The sometimes volatile issue of religious clubs on high school campuses provides one example. Simonds said he agrees with the federal Equal Access Act, which says a school district that allows student-led clubs focusing on chess or skiing must also permit Bible study, satanic or gay and lesbian clubs.

Satanic clubs are virtually nonexistent, Simonds said, based on his survey of hundreds of school districts. Although gay clubs at times have stirred controversy, Simonds said that is the price of allowing Christian clubs.

A surprisingly low-key issue today--despite ongoing political debates--is prayer in public schools. Haynes said that most people seem to understand that students may pray quietly alone or in informal, voluntary gatherings as long as they don't disrupt the educational mission of the school.

"Very few people on the conservative Christian side are arguing for school-sponsored, teacher-led prayer," he said. The present divisions--as reflected by different appeals court rulings--are over whether prayer is appropriate before "captive audiences" at graduation ceremonies and athletic contests, he said.

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