Charlotte, N.C., schools find narrow path through religion-secularism thicket

Over the past year, evangelist Pat Robertson has attacked the school district here in his national ``700 Club'' telecast. Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart have spoken here on humanism in the schools. In different ways, the same battle over religion and secularism has occurred in districts all over the country.

But the storm here has largely quieted. The policy on religion in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools is now considered a model by both local social liberals and local conservative Christians.

``It's now one of the best religion-in-schools programs in the country,'' says Carl Horn, the conservative activist who led local protests against the district and brought the Charlotte situation to the attention of the ``700 Club.''

``I think there's a good consensus around what happened,'' says Fraser Nelson, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood and a board member of a group formed to counter Mr. Horn's.

The controversy here flared up over public-school teachers who were engaging in religious activities outside of class periods. One was reading the Bible at lunch and discussing it with a student. They met after school and the student was, as district superintendent Jay Robinson puts it, ``connected to the Christian religion.''

Another group of teachers was meeting before school for Bible study and wanted to advertise in the school newsletter.

When the teachers were reprimanded, a group of conservative Christians in the community was outraged. They were also angry over the district's sex education policy, which activists like Horn still feel does not convey traditional sexual morality. Public meetings ensued, and some policies were adjusted. Both sides claimed victory.

In short, students and teachers can pray, read the Bible, and wear religious symbols at school. Religious groups can meet before and after school, as long as no one proselytizes for a particular religion and none of the activities interferes with the educational work of the school.

Behind all this, superintendent Robinson sees schools getting buffeted by dramatic changes in Charlotte itself. A once heavily Protestant, Bible belt town is becoming an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan financial center.

Some local Christians would rather see organized prayer in the schools, but the Supreme Court has ruled that illegal. Superintendent Robinson agrees that it should be. ``We have 69 languages in this system and probably as many religions. How can you write a prayer for all those kids?''

``I disagree with him,'' says Joe Chambers, minister at Paw Creek Church of God. ``I think the tradition of America is the Judeo-Christian tradition. If I moved to Iran or Iraq, I would expect my children to get Muslim values in school.'' Hence, Muslims and Buddhists, he suggests, should expect to be taught Judeo-Christian values in American schools.

Robinson agrees to an extent with the traditionalists. ``I think that a school system that doesn't teach that lying and cheating and stealing and promiscuity are wrong is not doing its job. These are American values.''

Sex education has been an even thornier issue than religion in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district. But Robinson says that schools, at least in this district, have swung back from the moral neutrality of the last decade.

He says classes stress ``never leaving any doubt in any student's mind about promiscuity, about sexual activity among school-age students'' being wrong.

Similar battles, some in the form of major lawsuits, are taking place across the South and elsewhere in the United States. The participants typically are not just local parents and activists. They include the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way on one hand and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the Moral Majority, and other social conservatives on the other.

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