Orange County Voices : COMMENTARY ON RELIGION IN SCHOOLS : More Awareness--Not an Equality Amendment--Is Needed : It's mandatory prayer and public funding of private schools via tuition vouchers that conservatives are after.

Benjamin J. Hubbard is professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Cal State Fullerton. He is writing "A Teacher's Guide to America's Religions."

The First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom apparently isn't enough for some religious conservatives. They are promoting the adoption of a religious equality amendment to the Constitution to prohibit the denial or abridgment, by federal or state governments, of the free exercise of religion. (This, incidentally, shouldn't be confused with the school prayer amendment, which conservatives have been promoting for years.)

The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition and others in the camp of the Religious Right seem oblivious to that part of the First Amendment that directs Congress to make no law "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. Because of the "establishment" (no state-sponsored religion) and "free exercise" clauses of the First Amendment, this country has the best record in history of respect and tolerance for diverse religions. Without these safeguards, we might have had many a Beirut, Bosnia or Belfast in our midst.

These conservative religionists are fond of dredging up isolated cases in which the right to practice one's religion was threatened. They cite proposed 1993 guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in which having a Bible on one's desk at work or talking about the Bible during free time would be interpreted as creating a hostile work environment. The good news is that in a June, 1994, Senate hearing, Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) challenged the commission's proposed guidelines and they were flushed. The First Amendment worked again!

What these religious conservatives are really after with the proposed amendment is carte blanche for their own agenda: public funding of private schools through tuition vouchers, mandatory prayer and Bible reading in public schools, and the like. It's a stealth amendment.

In an effort to explain which student religious activities are already permitted in public schools under the First Amendment and current law, the Clinton Administration recently issued guidelines describing these activities. They include praying individually or in informally organized prayer groups as long as this doesn't cause a disruption; reading the Bible privately; discussing religion with friends; expressing religious beliefs in homework, artwork or other assignments when related to subject matter being studied; distributing religious literature if other types of extra-curricular literature are also permitted; wearing religious messages on clothing when comparable non-religious messages are also allowed; and using school facilities for religious gatherings on the same basis as other student groups.

School-sponsored prayer, unwelcome proselytizing of other students and participation by teachers in student religious activities are still not allowed. Overall, the guidelines are a clear endorsement of a wide range of permissible religious activities.

But even more could be done to create religious respect and equality in our public classrooms without amending the Constitution or even passing new laws. Teachers and administrators need to take the time to acquaint themselves with the religious customs of their increasingly diverse student bodies. A few examples:

* By consulting almost any calendar it is possible to determine when the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) occur each fall. Last fall, one Southern California public school district scheduled the first day of classes on Rosh Hashanah. After a local rabbi objected, opening day was moved forward a few days to avoid the conflict. Although most calendars don't mention the principal religious holidays of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and others, the National Conference (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews) publishes a "Calendar of Holidays and Festivals" covering every event from the birth of the Buddha to Ash Wednesday. If there are students in class from a particular minority faith, recognition by the teacher of one of their holidays--and even a brief explanation of it--can be a source of pride and affirmation for them.

* Because Islam and Orthodox Judaism prohibit any art depicting a human being, teachers ought to be sure that alternative assignments are provided in art classes.

* Her religion's rules of modesty may dictate that a teen-aged Muslim girl wear sweat pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt in gym class. Teachers need to be sensitive to such customs.

* Some evangelical or "born-again" Christians--as well as Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses--are not comfortable with the ghosts and witches of Halloween. Teachers ought to leave such practices out of the classroom and let parents decide what to do with this holiday.

We don't need to expand the Constitution for the sake of some supposed lack of religious equality. Rather, we need to expand our awareness of, and respect for, the diverse religious customs of Americans. Particularly at the beginning of a new academic year, public schools are a good place to start.

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