Freedom of Religion in Public Schools

Following are remarks I made at the April 12, 2012 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Education. While the statement is content-specific, it does reflect my basic approach to the issue of religion in the public schools. By the way, the School Board voted to adopt policies which are a solid beginning to protecting and promoting religious freedom for everyone who works in, or attends, their schools.

I want to thank the Board or Education for considering these policies and the real human concerns which make them important. I also want to affirm the broad intent of the proposals which is to provide for, and protect, the separation of church and state; and to promote freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom from religion, in the Buncombe County Schools.

As a Christian and a Baptist pastor, I believe that the spirit of Jesus includes a refusal to coerce, directly or indirectly, strongly or subtly the conscience of another person. I also believe that, when the state, in this case the Buncombe County Schools, promotes, actively or passively, a particular religious viewpoint, it becomes an agent of coercion, impinging on the rights and freedoms of people who are served by the schools but who do not share that viewpoint.

While I do affirm the broad intent of the policies, I think the idea of allowing the “passive distribution of literature by non-school groups” is a bad idea. Inevitably, it will put school officials in a position of evaluating and judging the truth or appropriateness of the content of religious materials. That role is not one public officials should play. It will result in endless rounds of scrutiny, debate, protest, and likely legal action. I do not see how such a policy is practically workable, and I strongly object to it. And, besides I do not think religious groups need, or should want, the help of the state to share their messages with others.

I deeply believe that members of majority religions—in Buncombe County, that means Christians—need to be very intentional and proactive about protecting the rights of people who hold minority faiths, or no stated faith.

I encourage school board members to consider that to protect the separation of church and state is not only your duty as a public official but that it is a just, respectful and loving thing to do.